* 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
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
Last December the NSABB recommended the two papers not be
published in full by the journals where they were under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
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
"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
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