Royal Society meeting shines light on H5N1 experiments

At a recent meeting of scientists and experts at the Royal Society in London, two researchers who worked on projects involving mutated forms of H5N1 avian influenza said their independent projects did not produce a killer bug, but provided useful information for future studies.

The meeting provided a forum to discuss the benefits and pitfalls of manipulating deadly pathogens, and on how to report the information for public consumption, according to the Washington Post.

"We can use this information to understand what's happening in nature," Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin said, the Washington Post reports.

Kawaoka's study on H5N1, as well as a study produced by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, were at the center of a controversy that lead to the London meeting. Two leading scientific journals refused to publish their work in full at the request of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a committee of scientists that advises the U.S. government about federally funded research.

After a closer examination of older and newer data provided by Fouchier and Kawaoka, the board changed its mind. Now, the journals Science and Nature say they plan to publish the papers soon.

Kawaoka said his work is already shedding light on recent H5N1 outbreaks in Egypt.

As more details of the studies have emerged, many have agreed that their fears are being allayed, but numerous listeners believe it is only a matter of time before another debate over "dual-use research" emerges.

"It was not clear," Robert G. Webster, a researcher from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, said, the Washington Post reports. "It was not clear. There was a great misunderstanding on my own part, and on the part of the [committee], on the question of a transmissible lethal virus in ferrets."

Fouchier said his experiment was only lethal in ferrets if the virus was sprayed directly into their windpipes. When it passed from cage to cage in air droplets from coughs and sneezes, none of the animals died. Kawaoka's research also engineered a virus that did not kill its test subjects. Kawaoka said the infections were also easily stopped with the drug Tamiflu.