A meeting of World Health Organization (WHO) health experts has reportedly reached a consensus on whether to proceed with controversial avian influenza research despite potential security risks. WHO apparently convened the consultation after officials expressed concern about H5N1 strains modified in U.S. and Dutch laboratories to spread more easily among mammals. In particular, panelists discussed recommendations to redact two studies on the new viruses and implement “a mechanism for providing the restricted information to legitimate recipients.”

“Given the high death rate associated with this virus—60 percent of all humans who have been infected have died—all participants at the meeting emphasized the high level of concern with this flu virus in the scientific community and the need to understand it better with additional research,” said WHO Assistant Director-General of Health Security and Environment Keiji Fukuda in a February 17, 2012, press release. “The results of this new research have made it clear that H5N1 viruses have the potential to transmit more easily between people underscoring the critical importance for continued surveillance and research with this virus.”  

To this end, the WHO panel approved continuing work on naturally occurring avian influenza but agreed to extend “a temporary moratorium” on research with the modified viruses. It also moved to delay publication pending “(1) a focused communications plan to increase public awareness and understanding of the significance of these studies and the rationale for their publication, and (2) a review of the essential biosafety and biosecurity aspects of the newly developed knowledge.” As Fukuda explained, “There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies. However, there are significant public concerns surrounding this research that should first be addressed.”

Once these concerns have been addressed, the panel has urged the release of the new work without any redactions, a decision that reportedly worried National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, who attended the meeting on behalf of the United States. “The group consensus was that it was much more important to get this information to scientists in any easy way to allow them to work on the problem for the good of public health. It was not unanimous, but a very strong consensus,” he was quoted as saying. See The New York Times, February 17, 2012.