GENEVA, Switzerland – After researchers in the United States and the Netherlands each created mutated forms of the H5N1 influenza virus that could spread among humans, biosecurity concerns triggered officials with the World Health Organization to extend a moratorium to prevent the release of specific details of the research.
Two research papers providing details on how the H5N1 virus could mutate and spread throughout the human population, were submitted to two different journals this past year, both of which were contacted by the US National Security Advisory Board for Biotechnology and asked to redact the original papers. The importance of the information to developing a human vaccine vs. the risk of the research falling into the hands of terrorists was the focus of a group of health officials at a meeting convened by WHO this past week. The group agreed to delay publication of the entire research manuscripts and they reached a consensus that continued research on naturally occurring H5N1 influenza is necessary to ensure that public health is not compromised.
“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 Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general of health security in a statement. “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.”
WHO officials said its goals include increasing public awareness of the research through communications while reviewing the and biosecurity aspects created by the laboratory-modified H5N1 virus.
“There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies. However there are significant public concern surrounding this research that should first be addressed,” said Fukuda.