Bird flu experts meeting in Geneva on Friday ruled that controversial research on a mutant form of the virus potentially capable of being spread among humans should be made public.
However, security assessments must be carried out first before the two studies can be published and the research can continue, scientists agreed at a two-day meeting at the WHO.
“The consensus was that in the interest of public health, the full papers should be published,” professor Ron Fouchier from the Institute of Virology in the Netherlands, the scientist behind one of the studies, said at the meeting.
US biosecurity chiefs in November last year called for key details of the papers to remain unpublished, citing fears of a pandemic should a mutated H5N1 virus escape the laboratory.
Scientists agreed on Jan. 20 to a 60-day moratorium on further studies.
That deadline will now be extended for an unspecified time to allow for a wider group of scientists to examine the risks and allow for public discussion, Fouchier said at a conference following the meeting.
“This is very important research that needs to move forward,” he said. “The question is, how can it be done safely, what about biosecurity, how do we prevent access to bad people?”
“Once there’s agreement on all those issues then we can continue our work,” he said.
The 22 participants included the two teams of researchers and representatives of the scientific journals Science and Nature who were asked to withhold publication.
Avian influenza H5N1 is primarily transmitted between birds and very rarely to humans.
The Dutch team and another from the University of Wisonsin in the US found ways late last year to engineer the virus so that it could be transmitted among mammals.
The breakthrough raised alarm that the method could fall into the wrong hands and unleash a massive flu pandemic that could cost millions of lives.
The WHO said 345 people have died from H5N1 from a total of 584 cases in 15 countries. The majority of victims have been in Indonesia.
“Given the high death rate associated with this virus, 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,” WHO assistant director-general of health security Keiji Fukuda said.
The body underlined the need to increase public understanding of the research and to review biosecurity issues. The WHO will host further meetings “soon” with a wider range of scientists.
“This was a group of experts on influenza research,” Fouchier said. “We need to consult with the broader scientific community.”