The American plan for dealing with public release of details from the H5N1 influenza research funded by the U.S. government got trumped last Friday by the contrary conclusion of a committee assembled by the World Health Organization.
The WHO assembled a group of 22 researchers and policy makers from 10 countries in Geneva on Feb. 16-17 to discuss H5N1 airborne-transmissibility research, and the group came to three main conclusions, according to a statement they released and comments later in a press conference by Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director general for Health Security and the Environment:
■ Research into H5N1 virus capable of airborne transmission from mammal to mammal is important and should continue.
■ Full public reporting of all details of the research done so far by Dr. Fouchier in Rotterdam and Dr. Kawaoka in Madison, Wis., should occur in the near future.
■ Until WHO crafts a process by which these full reports can be released publicly, they should remain under wraps along with continuation of the self-imposed moratorium on further research on the new H5N1 strains previously pledged by both Dr. Fouchier and Dr. Kawaoka.
The WHO panel’s decision directly refutes the ruling first made public last December by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to redact the methods sections when the papers by Dr. Fouchier and Dr. Kawaoka are published. Science magazine has been holding the Fouchier manuscript, while Nature has the Kawaoka paper, and until late last week both journals intended to publish the redacted versions of their articles in March. Those plans are now on hold.
While the WHO’s Dr. Fukuda repeatedly stressed that consensus had been reached by the panel, news reports with comments from the two U.S. panelists, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Paul Keim, acting NSABB chairman, suggest something else: Their views got buried.
“I stand by the NSABB recommendations,” said Dr. Fauci, according to a report in Science. During the press conference, Dr. Fukuda admitted that “the representative from NIH pointed out that himself and others from the U.S. on record comply and understand and support the NSABB decision.”
Dr. Keim was blunter in his critique: “I was disappointed in this conclusion [by the WHO panel] as it was one that NSABB worked hard to achieve,” he told Science.
Dr. Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, noted in a separate press conference last Friday that the issue had grown too global to be settled by a U.S.-centric group like the NSABB.
“In the long run, an international organization like WHO had to take charge of this… It may be the start of an international version of the NSABB,” Dr. Alberts said.
—Mitchel Zoler (on Twitter @mitchelzoler)