Two controversial studies on bird flu will once again be reviewed by an expert committee that advises the government on what to do with biological research that could pose potential dangers.
The move is just the latest development in a fierce ongoing debate about genetically altered flu viruses created in laboratories at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The announcement came today at a scientific conference attended by about a thousand biodefense experts in Washington, D.C., that was organized by the American Society of Microbiology. One of the scientists who did the work, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center, spoke at the conference and presented data suggesting that the mutant virus created in his lab was not as dangerous as has been presented in media reports.
"Certainly, this would not be a virus that would kill half of the world population, as we've seen in the lay press time and time again. That is clearly, clearly wrong," said Fouchier.
The experiments involved the potentially lethal H5N1 bird flu virus and showed which genetic changes could make the virus spread through the air between ferrets — the laboratory stand-in for people.
Late last year, in an unprecedented move, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity reviewed the work and recommended not publicly publishing the details of how these altered viruses were created, so as not to publish a recipe that could be misused by someone seeking to create a dangerous, contagious virus.
But earlier this month, the World Health Organization convened a different panel, mostly composed of international flu experts, that came to the opposite conclusion. It said the experiments were important for public health efforts to prepare for a possible future pandemic, and that they should be published openly.
Fouchier emphasized that in his studies, ferrets did not die after getting the virus from the sneezes and coughs of other ferrets. "Certainly, if the ferrets receive virus via aerosol route, we have never seen severe disease in the ferrets," he said, although the virus could be highly lethal if administered at high doses directly into the respiratory tract of ferrets. He added that pre-exposure to seasonal flu seems to offer protection from severe disease.
Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the government will ask the NSABB to review new versions of both scientific manuscripts in a meeting that could happen as early as March, depending on people's schedules. He said the discussion would cover new data and "re-clarification" of old data, so that the members of the NSABB would have the opportunity to see the same information as the WHO panel.
Paul Keim, acting chairman of the NSABB, said "new data is always good. We're scientists; we love data." But he said until the committee has seen the data, it's impossible to say if it could change their views on whether to publish the work.
"The board has always said that our recommendations were the first step in this process and that we were, if anything, just putting out an alert that this is an area of great concern that needs to be looked at very closely by a broad spectrum of people," Keim noted.
Another member of the NSABB, Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, said the committee's initial recommendations came after hundreds of hours of conference calls that took place over two months. "To say that this was in-depth would not do it justice," said Osterholm, who noted that the recommendations were unanimous.
He noted that one of the primary concerns of the committee was the ability of the researchers to change a flu virus in ways that made it readily transmissible between mammals.
"As we've tried to make clear from the very beginning, the virulence of virus, the ability of it to kill, is not central to our deliberations," said Osterholm. "Because we know that what happens in ferrets may not predict what will happen in terms of virulence in humans."
The committee had recommended that sensitive details of the experiments be made available to legitimate scientists around the world through some sort of secure communications process. Government officials have been working hard to create such a system, but it's proving legally to be no easy matter. And some researchers say any attempts to keep the information under wraps would be futile anyway.