The full details of two controversial experiments on bird flu should be published openly, says a panel convened by the World Health Organization.
But information about the studies should remain secret a while longer so that there's time to address public concerns, the group recommends. The experiments should stay on hold, too.
The research in question produced genetically altered bird flu viruses, and critics say these germs could be dangerous for people if they ever escaped the lab. A committee that advises the U. S. government on security issues related to biological research recently said that key details should be kept under wraps, so as not to give terrorists ideas.
The WHO panel, in contrast, held a closed-door session to consider the matter and concluded that full publication is preferable.
The panel, which was composed mostly of virologists, felt that it would be too difficult to set up some kind of secure system that would share redacted information only with legitimate scientists. They noted that much information about the two flu studies is already out there anyway, and that this is crucial science for helping to spot an emerging pandemic that might occur if bird flu mutates out in nature.
But they said publication should wait, possibly for a few months, until a public communication campaign could calm fears and explain the benefits of the work.
A scientists' voluntary moratorium on any additional work with these viruses, or the creation of more like them, should continue while issues related to biosafety and biosecurity are assessed.
Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of the journal Science, wants to publish one of the flu experiment manuscripts in some form. He expressed surprise that the committee had reached a decision. "We didn't think that that was going to happen today," Alberts said. "I'm not completely clear about what the decision means, because it's qualified."
He said his journal and the journal Nature had been on track to publish redacted versions of the flu experiment manuscripts in mid-March. "Certainly that's now not going to happen," Alberts said.
"My reading is that both Nature and Science are to wait until we get some further information from the WHO and other authorities on when, in fact, we are able to publish the full manuscripts," Alberts said. "We're waiting for information that will clarify what is desired by the international community and by governments."
Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who has been a vocal critic of the bird flu studies, said he was pleased that the panel saw the need to extend the current moratorium on doing experiments with these viruses or creating more like them.
"The problem here is not one of just improving public communication," he said." "The problem is deciding whether the benefits of doing more work to make H5N1 more transmissible are worth the dangers of accident or misuse."
In his view, it will be critical that any future WHO-led deliberations on this work include public health officials, physicians and other representatives of society that have concerns about the risks of the research.