Publishing H5N1 in full would add little to knowledge, expert says

A leading scientific journal recently reported that publishing two controversial avian influenza studies in full would add little to what has already been made available in scientific literature.

The World Health Organization, which recently hosted a group of public health experts at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the issue, determined that the details of two independent studies that created forms of H5N1 that are transmissible in humans should be made available to protect public health, according to

The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity requested that the scientific journals Science and Nature not publish certain portions of the research to keep the information from easily falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue nations.

H5N1 erupted in bird populations in 2004. Though it does not spread readily in humans, over half of the people who have been infected with the virus have died. The disputed research by scientists in the Netherlands and the United States resulted in the creation of strains that spread as readily as the common flu, raising concerns from the NSABB that the mutated forms could be used as a bioweapon.

The journal New Scientist said that publication of the details would add little to any threat because the details of similar studies have already been made available, according to

In September, Reuben Donis and colleagues from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention altered a different strain of H5N1 with the same mutations as those created by the Dutch scientist Ron Fouchier. Donis also switched other genes, adding the same polymerase mutation that Fouchier began with to make his strain transmissible in ferrets, which are used to approximate the virus' effect on humans.

Unlike Fouchier, Donis said that it would be quite difficult for a transmissible form of H5N1 to occur naturally.

The publication dispute recently led to a group of imminent influenza virologists imposing a temporary, voluntary moratorium on similar H5N1 research. Science and Nature both agreed to the NSABB request to publish redacted versions of the research, but only if a means were found to ensure that the omitted details could be accessed by those scientists that need them.

Keiji Fukuda of the WHO recently said that the experts meeting in Geneva agreed that there was no ready way to determine who should have access to the information. The group has advised postponing publication until it could consult with various "non-scientific" groups about the risks involved.