February 22, 2012

WHO Meeting on H5N1 Virus : Delay Publication, Slow Down Research

Last week, an emergency meeting was called by the World Health Organization to consider the recent development of a genetically refined H5N1 influenza with apparent pandemic potential. Those in attendance included virologists, public health officials and scientific publishers. Two issues were paramount. Is this research worth continuing despite possible adverse consequences? Should the full details of the virus production and structure be published? In November, the leading journals  Science and Nature were asked by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to publish only redacted versions of the submitted publications detailing the virus work; see here for their reasoning; this issue has been under advisement at these journals. Now, the WHO meeting has come to a recommendation that the scientific articles be published in full with no redactions, but that more delay to consider all ramifications is advisable. This meeting now places WHO into the mix of authorities who are weighing in on these issues; of course, the research under focus was funded by NIH and conducted in the Netherlands and the U.S. It also means that the NSABB is not the only party that is considering how to modulate scientific publication (here, it’s a delay, but that lines up with evaluating the act of publication for its public health consequences). The participants endorsed the value of the research, but agreed that a continued moratorium on further research into this H5N1 virus was advisable to allow fuller deliberation on the biosecurity risks and benefits. More meetings are planned for the future. Apparently, the U.S. continued to argue for redacted publication, which is interesting given the central role of NIH as the funder of the controversial research. So this is a small victory for those who oppose publication controls on scientific research; no doubt, however, that all the attention given to publication decisions resulted in an attention to the underlying research that might not have occurred otherwise.

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