H5N1 debate rages

A Thursday night New York City debate demonstrated the controversy over H5N1 virus research, with some leading voices on the subject exchanging blunt comments about the risks and benefits of publishing or withholding study details.

The debate involved two members of the biosecurity board that recommended a redaction of the two H5N1 virus studies in question, scientists who want the studies published and representatives of Nature and Science, the two journals that were involved, CIDRAP News reports.

"I hope that this redaction, which I do feel has some very valuable things associated with it, is a onetime event," Barbara Jasny, the deputy editor for commentary at Science, said, according to CIDRAP News. "I hope this is not something that'll become institutionalized as a way of dealing with the problem."

The two studies involved generating an H5N1 virus and an H5N1-H1N1 reassortant that spread between ferrets via respiratory droplets. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended in December that details be deleted from the two reports before publication.

The discussion on Thursday covered many of the main contention points, including the reliability of ferrets as a model for human influenza, the magnitude of the H5N1 threat and mutant viruses in general, and the government's role in regulating research in science.

During the debate, Jasny commended the two authors of the H5N1 studies on their responsibility of understanding the larger picture of the controversy.

"They could've withdrawn the papers and published them elsewhere if they so chose," Jasny said, according to CIDRAP News. "They're tried to work through the system, realizing the problems that are inherent in the situation. That's another reason to publish a redacted manuscript, because they've played fair."