Most of the group felt that any theoretical risk of the virus’s being used by terrorists was far outweighed by the “real and present danger” of similar flu viruses in the wild, and by the need to study them and freely share information that could help identify the exact changes that might signal that a virus is developing the ability to cause a pandemic, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who represented the United States at the meeting.
The natural form of the virus being studied has infected millions of birds, mostly in poor countries in Asia, and although it does not often infect people, it has a high death rate when it does. If the virus were to develop the ability to infect humans more easily, and to spread from person to person — which it almost never does now — it could kill millions of people.
“The group consensus was that it was much more important to get this information to scientists in an easy way to allow them to work on the problem for the good of public health,” Dr. Fauci said. “It was not unanimous, but a very strong consensus.”
But the United States was not part of that consensus, Dr. Fauci said. He said he still agreed with the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which recommended in December that the research be published only in a redacted form, for safety reasons.
The experiments involve a type of bird flu virus known as H5N1. Of about 600 known cases, more than half have been fatal. The exact death rate is not known, however, because some deaths may go uncounted and mild cases may go undiagnosed. But whatever the death rate turns out to be, most researchers think it will be significantly higher than that of any flu virus, even the notorious 1918 flu, which had a death rate of about 2 percent. The 1918 virus, however, was highly contagious, and killed as many as 50 million people worldwide.
The H5N1 work, paid for by the National Institutes of Health, was done by two separate research teams, at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Research on the viruses was voluntarily suspended by the researchers last month because of the uproar it provoked. News of the experiments, which were conducted last year, set off public fears that the virus could accidentally leak out of a laboratory, or be stolen by terrorists, and result in a devastating pandemic. Scientists have been divided, with some urging that the results be published in full, and others saying the research is so dangerous that it should never even have been done, much less published.
The moratorium on the research and its publication will be extended, probably for several months, according to Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the health organization’s assistant director general for health security and the environment, who spoke at a news conference after the two-day meeting in Geneva.
Dr. Fukuda said that the moratorium would give researchers and officials an opportunity to provide better information to the public about the research and its importance, and would also give safety experts a chance to assess the conditions in which the work is being done.
For now, he said, the group agreed that it was “best that these viruses should stay where they are — in well-run high-security labs.”
The researchers in the Netherlands and Wisconsin made genetic changes in the virus that made it transmissible through the air among ferrets, an animal considered a good model for the way flu behaves in humans. It is not known whether the new virus would be equally contagious in people.
Bruce Alberts, editor of the journal Science, said his journal and another one, Nature, had been planning to publish redacted versions of the research in mid-March. Now, Dr. Alberts said, they will wait until it is considered appropriate to publish the full versions. He said he was surprised that the group meeting in Geneva had reached a decision so promptly. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/18/health/details-of-bird-flu-resear...