* Panel head explains reason for backing release
* 'Confidential information' about the risks a factor
* Mutated virus less lethal than scientists feared
By Kate Kelland and Sharon Begley
LONDON/NEW YORK, April 2 A U.S biosecurity panel's recommendation that two controversial papers on bird flu be published in full is not a reversal of the stand it took last year out of concerns over terrorism, the head of the group said on Monday in London.
"We had new information, confidential information, about benefits of this research, and we also had confidential information about the risks involved," said Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, who is the acting chairman of the panel. "And the balance began to change."
Explaining its decision, announced last Friday, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) said in a statement that "the data described in the revised manuscripts do not appear to provide information that would immediately enable misuse of the research in ways that would endanger public health or national security.
"New evidence has emerged that underscores the fact that understanding specific mutations may improve international surveillance and public health and safety."
The board was unanimous in its recommendation that the study conducted at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, be published in full.
But it split 12-6 in favor of publishing a study from Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. It did not explain the lingering concerns about that study.
The journals have said they will publish the papers this year.
Last December the NSABB recommended the two papers not be published in full by the journals where they were under consideration, Nature and Science.
The panel feared that details of the studies, which induced mutations in the H5N1 avian flu virus that made it transmissible among mammals by air rather than by close physical contact, could be used for bioterrorism.
Critics of the recommendation raised fears that important science was being censored.
The ensuing debate raised questions about whether the research should have been done at all, as well as whether current national and international rules on biosafety and biosecurity are sufficient to protect the public from dangerous microbes.
The biosecurity panel spent two days last week considering the papers, which had been revised, Keim said at the London briefing. Both papers describe how scientists altered several genes of the natural, or wild-type, H5N1 virus in a way that allowed it to spread from the airways of infected ferrets to other ferrets caged nearby.
The decision by the NSABB to sign off on the publications will have little practical effect. Experts convened by the World Health Organization in February recommended that the papers be published. Keim was among the experts at that meeting.
So far, the natural form of H5N1 has infected tens of millions of ducks, geese, chickens, and other birds. But the only people to be infected - 598, of whom 353 have died - were those who came into close contact with the flocks.
In contrast to the original manuscripts, the revised versions showed that the genetic manipulations did not pose the threat the biosecurity panel originally believed.
The NSABB had access to additional confidential information on the risks and benefits of publishing the H5N1 research, and for most of the board that information was compelling, Keim told reporters.
"The papers were different, the risks and benefits were different, and finally, and very importantly, the U.S. government issued new policy guidelines (last week) showing it would keep closer tabs on this kind of research," Keim said.
MORE TRANSMISSIBLE, LESS LETHAL
Ron Fouchier, who led the Erasmus experiments, said the NSABB decision was "very much to our pleasure." He and Keim stressed that nothing would be censored in the paper.
Instead, the paper to be published by Science will be significantly longer. Fouchier said it will "give more of an indication of what the public health benefits might be."
The paper also will include "clear and explicit" information about the lethality of the mutated virus, which is less than the NSABB originally believed. In other words, although the genetic mutations made H5N1 more transmissible among mammals, they apparently also made it less deadly.
"Our (new) manuscript has no restrictions," said Fouchier. "We can publish all the details that we want."
He and Keim agreed that the 11th-hour recommendation last December against releasing the papers was not the way biosecurity concerns should be addressed.
Instead, under the new U.S. policy, such studies will be reviewed in a "cradle to grave" way, they explained, suggesting that potentially dangerous research will receive a more intensive review before it is so far along as to be publishable.
In addition, Keim said, the biosecurity board's discussions last October and November, all by phone, were too short. In hindsight, he said, "that should have been a face-to-face meeting."
Asked whether the NSABB had misunderstood the original papers, Keim said it had spent more than 200 hours reviewing them and faced enormous pressure from all sides - from the journals, from the researchers and from the National Institutes of Health, which funded both studies - to act quickly.
"I think this is not the process that should be used for reviewing these types of papers in the future," he said. (Reporting By Sharon Begley and Kate Kelland; Editing by Xavier Briand)