World Health Organization experts have delayed a decision on whether controversial research into the H5N1 bird flu virus should be released.
It had been looking at how the work could be released while guarding against its abuse by bioterrorists.
But talks at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva decided more discussions were needed to see if it could be possible to publish in full.
One of the two journals which want to publish has already agreed to wait for talks to be complete.
The controversy is centred on two research papers – one of which was submitted to Science, the other to another leading journal, Nature, last year.
The two papers showed that the H5N1 virus could relatively easily mutate into a form that could spread rapidly among the human population.
World Health Organization experts have delayed a decision on whether controversial research into the H5N1 bird flu virus should be released
The studies prompted the US National Security Advisory Board for Biotechnology (NSABB) to ask both journals last November to redact some sensitive parts of the research, which it believed could be used by terrorists to develop such a virus.
The request caused outcry among some scientists who believed that it was an infringement of academic freedom.
Some pointed out that the scientists had given presentations about their work at conferences and the details were already widely circulated, so redaction would have little purpose.
The scientists who carried out the research, and the journals concerned, have been considering the request and listening to suggestions as to how the research results could be redacted in the scientific journals, but distributed to bona fide researchers who urgently need the information.
The information is vital to develop a vaccine to any human form of bird flu, and it would enable surveillance teams to see if the bird flu virus was mutating into a form that could be transmissible to humans.
But such efforts have been put on hold for four months as governments, scientists and the journals decide what to do.
The Geneva meeting of 22 scientists and journal representatives agreed that publishing only parts of the research would not be helpful, because they would not give the full context of a complete paper.
It agreed to extend a temporary moratorium on research using lab-modified H5N1 viruses, but also recognized that research on naturally occurring virus “must continue”.
Dr. Keji Fukada, assistant director-general of health security and environment for the WHO, said: “Given the high death rate associated with this virus – 60% of all humans who have been infected have died – 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.
“The results of this new research have made it clear that H5N1 viruses have the potential to transmit more easily between people underscoring the critical importance for continued surveillance and research with this virus.”
Dr. Keji Fukada added: “There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies. However there are significant public concern surrounding this research that should first be addressed.”
Experts will now look at what information is already in the public domain and how that relates to the contents of these research papers.
A further meeting is likely to happen in a couple of months’ time.
Nature has said it is happy to wait – if there is a chance it will able to publish in full.
Science’s editor Dr. Bruce Alberts, had previously said it also wanted to publish full details of the work, unless progress was made on how to circulate details of the findings to scientists.
A Chinese man, who was the first case of bird flu in the country in more than a year, has died in the southern city of Shenzhen, according to health officials.
The 39-year-old bus driver was admitted to hospital with pneumonia but tested positive for the bird flu virus.
The H5N1 bird flu strain has a high level of mortality, killing up to 60% of humans infected with it.
Positive tests on a dead market chicken last week prompted nearby Hong Kong’s government to issue an alert.
Hong Kong authorities culled 17,000 chickens after three birds were found to have died from the H5N1 bird flu strain.
It also banned imports and the sale of live chickens for three weeks after the infected chicken carcass was found at a wholesale market.
But it was not clear whether the chicken came from a local farm or was imported.
The Shenzhen victim had not been in contact with poultry, nor travelled recently, China’s Ministry of Health told Hong Kong health authorities.
In November 2010, a 59-year-old woman was isolated in Hong Kong with bird flu but survived.
In October 2011 a 29-year-old woman confirmed to have contracted the virus died on the Indonesian island of Bali.
The World Health Organization says bird flu has killed 332 people since 2003.
The virus has been eliminated from most of the 63 countries infected at its 2006 peak, which saw 4,000 outbreaks across the globe, but remains endemic in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture warned last month that the bird flu virus seemed to exist widely in the poultry markets of mainland China, particularly in the south.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has expressed deep concern about the way research was being carried out on the H5N1 virus, which can be fatal if transmitted to humans.
Such work carried significant risks and must be tightly controlled, said the WHO.
Scientists in the Netherlands and the US said last week they had discovered ways in which the virus might mutate so it can spread more easily to – and between – humans and other mammals.
The US government has asked the scientists not to publish full details, in case the information is used to produce a biological weapon.
Dutch researchers who developed a deadly strain of bird flu to help create vaccines have been told their research is a terrorist threat.
Scientists have for the first time been able to mutate the H5N1 strain of avian influenza so that it can be transmitted easily through the air.
Previously it was thought that H5N1 bird flu could only be transmitted between humans if they came into very close physical contact.
The research team of the Erasmus Medical in Rotterdam was hoping their work would help with the development of drugs and vaccines to counter mutations of the disease.
However, the groundbreaking investigation may never see the light of day amid fears that it could be used to develop a biological weapon.
Last month it was reported that there were fears the modified strain of the H5N1 virus is more dangerous than anthrax.
At the time, virologist Ron Fouchier admitted the strain is “one of the most dangerous viruses you can make”, but is still adamant he wants to publish a paper describing how it was done.
Last month it was reported that there were fears the modified strain of the H5N1 virus is more dangerous than anthrax
The findings had been due to be published in the American journal Science, but the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is now reviewing the paper to assess whether it should be blocked from publication.
One senior scientific advisor to the U.S. Government was last night quoted as saying: “The fear is that if you create something this deadly and it goes into a global pandemic the mortality and cost to the world could be massive. The worst-case scenario here is worse than anything you can imagine.”
The mutated virus is being stored under lock and key in a basement building at the centre in Rotterdam, but is without armed guards.
Dr. Ron Fouchier, who led the study, said that by experimenting on ferrets, whose immune system is very similar to humans, it is possible to create a highly-infectious strain through just a few mutations.
The decision on whether the findings should be published has divided academics as well as security specialists.
Thomas Inglesby, of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, told the New Scientist: “The benefits of publishing this work do not outweigh the dangers of showing other how to replicate it.”
Some critics have said that the research should never have been carried out because there is a risk that the dangerous form of flu could escape from the laboratory.
But Dr. Ron Fouchier defended the experiment, saying: “We know which mutation to watch for in the case of an outbreak and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late. Furthermore, the finding will help in the timely development of vaccinations and medication.”
A second team of independent researchers at the universities of Wisconsin and Tokyo have carried out a similar study and are thought to have found similar results, which show how easy it is to create a more contagious strain.
The H5N1 strain of bird flu is fatal in 60% of human cases, but its spread has been limited because it is not passed between humans easily.
It has led to the deaths of millions of birds, but has only killed around 300 people since 2003.
There are more than a dozen strains of bird flu in the wild. The most virulent are H5 and H7, while the H5N1 subtype is the deadliest.
Scientists have previously warned that H5N1 could mutate into a new, deadly form of human flu.
Paul Keim, chairman of NSABB, said: “I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one. I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”
Traditionally scientific research has always been open so that fellow scientists can review the work of others and repeat their methods to try and learn from them.
But numerous scientists have said they believe research on the avian flu should be suppressed.
However bio-defense and flu expert Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said the work carried out was medically important.
He added he could not discuss the papers because he was a member of NSABB but said if they were published certain information could be withheld and made available to those who really need to know.
“We don’t want to give bad guys a road map on how to make bad bugs really bad,” Michael Osterholm said.