Research into how scientists mutated the H5N1 bird flu virus into a form that could cause a deadly human pandemic will remain secret for now, the World Health Organization (WHO) has ruled, to avoid it falling into the wrong hands.
A WHO official said after a high-level meeting of flu experts and US security officials in Geneva that a deal had been reached to keep details of the controversial work, carried out in The Netherlands and the US, under wraps until more a comprehensive risk analysis could be carried out.
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"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," Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security and environment, said in a written statement.
"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," Fukuda said.
Scientists in January agreed to a WHO request to delay the release of their research study for 60 days pending review of biosecurity risks.
(GlobalPost reports: Scientists pause study of deadly bird flu strains)
The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), meantime, had wanted the work censored before it was published in scientific journals.
Reuters cited WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl as saying fears that bioterrorists could use the research to spark a pandemic worse than the 1918-19 outbreak of Spanish flu, which killed up to 40 million people, warranted "a much fuller discussion of risk and benefits of research in this area and risks of virus itself."
Still, scientists insist that the research be published eventually.
Reuters quoted Dr. Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, who was involved in the studies, as saying that "in the interest of public health," the papers should be published.
"This was based on the high public health impact of this work and the need to share the details of the studies with a very big community in the interest of science, surveillance and public health on the whole," he said.
The scientists had said in a letter in the journal "Nature" there were "positive public health benefits" to their research.
However, Bioterror expert Thomas Inglesby criticized the research: "It's just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus. And it's a second bad idea for them to publish how they did it so others can copy it," he said, according to NPR.