* Mutated virus less lethal than scientists feared
* Move reflects international politics of flu research
* Journals say they will publish the papers this year
(Updates with additional explanations from panel member, new
calculation of benefits to surveillance)
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."
The board was unanimous in recommending 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 research.
The journals have said they will publish the papers this
FRAGILE GLOBAL COALITION
The most significant change in the calculation of the risks
and benefits of publishing the papers reflected the delicate
global politics of flu research, microbiologist Arturo
Casadevall of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York
City told Reuters.
A briefing to the board by the World Health Organization
(WHO) raised fears that censoring the papers would threaten the
"fragile" international collaboration that the WHO had assembled
to combat avian flu, said Casadevall, a member of the
The WHO had worked for years to persuade Indonesia and other
countries to share samples of avian flu, or H5N1, with the
international scientific community.
Previously, Indonesia had declined to do so under a
principle its government called "viral sovereignty," by which it
meant that microbes found in Indonesia belonged to the state and
did not have to be shared with outsiders.
Indonesia viewed the withholding of the two papers as
equivalent to its withholding samples of virus. That raised
concerns that if the papers were not published, Indonesia and
other countries coaxed into cooperating with the WHO would cease
"I and many others on the board were worried that if we had
a flu outbreak our only hope would be international
collaboration," said Casadevall.
Withholding the papers posed a risk to that collaboration, a
risk the biosecurity board viewed as more dangerous than the
possibility that terrorists would use the information to create
an H5N1 pandemic.
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. Both papers describe how scientists altered several
genes of natural, or wild-type, H5N1 in a way that allowed it to
spread from the airways of infected ferrets to other ferrets
The decision by the NSABB to sign off on the publications
will have little practical effect. Experts convened by the WHO
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.
The board was persuaded by an additional benefit of
publishing the research: by informing countries where H5N1 is
endemic, it would allow scientists there to be on the lookout
for the mutations that make the virus more transmissible.
"Last fall we were told that there would be no benefit to
surveillance because no surveillance was being done in these
countries," said board member Casadevall.
"But that changed. We had presentations that if countries
had this information -- these are the mutations that could get
us into trouble -- it would catalyze surveillance."
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 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
Fouchier and Keim agreed that the 11th-hour recommendation
last December against releasing the papers was not how
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.
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