Research on Deadly Bird Flu to Be Published in Full
The full details of recent experiments that made a deadly flu virus more contagious will be published, probably within a few months, despite recommendations by the United States that some information be kept secret for fear that terrorists could use it to start epidemics.
The announcement, made on Friday by the World Health Organization, follows two months of heated debate about the flu research. The recommendation to publish the work in full came from a meeting of 22 experts in flu and public health from various countries who met on Thursday and Friday in Geneva at the organization’s headquarters to discuss “urgent issues” raised by the research.
Most of the group felt that any theoretical risk of the virus’s being used by terrorists was far outweighed by the “real and present danger” of similar flu viruses in the wild, and by the need to study them and freely share information that could help identify the exact changes that might signal that a virus is developing the ability to cause a pandemic, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who represented the United States at the meeting.
The natural form of the virus being studied has infected millions of birds, mostly in poor countries in Asia, and although it does not often infect people, it has a high death rate when it does. If the virus were to develop the ability to infect humans more easily, and to spread from person to person — which it almost never does now — it could kill millions of people.
“The group consensus was that it was much more important to get this information to scientists in an easy way to allow them to work on the problem for the good of public health,” Dr. Fauci said. “It was not unanimous, but a very strong consensus.”
But the United States was not part of that consensus, Dr. Fauci said. He said he still agreed with the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which recommended in December that the research be published only in a redacted form, for safety reasons.
The experiments involve a type of bird flu virus known as H5N1. Of about 600 known cases, more than half have been fatal. The exact death rate is not known, however, because some deaths may go uncounted and mild cases may go undiagnosed. But whatever the death rate turns out to be, most researchers think it will be significantly higher than that of any flu virus, even the notorious 1918 flu, which had a death rate of about 2 percent. The 1918 virus, however, was highly contagious, and killed as many as 50 million people worldwide.