Nature calls for publishing full H5N1 studies, pending safety review

Feb 22, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – Pending the outcome of a review of lab safety issues, two disputed studies involving H5N1 viruses with increased transmissibility in mammals should be published in full, the editors of Nature say in an editorial published today.

The editors assert that the human health risks of not publishing the full papers seem greater than the biosecurity risks posed by publishing them.

Their position generally matches the majority view of a group of public health and influenza experts—including a Nature representative—who met under World Health Organization (WHO) auspices last week. That group said a current 60-day moratorium on research leading to the generation of more-transmissible H5N1 viruses should be extended and that the two studies should be published in full at a later date, after a review of biosafety and security issues and a public education effort.

In December the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended that Nature and Science, the journals intending to publish the studies, omit key details that could allow others to replicate the experiments. The journals indicated they would comply if a way could be found to provide the full studies to scientists who have a legitimate need for them.

Both journals prepared full and redacted versions of the papers, and participants in the WHO meeting examined both versions, the Nature editorial notes. It says this led the participants to conclude that redaction of the reports would be ineffective in preventing dissemination of the details, given that the methods are not new and one of the studies was described at a meeting last September.

It also became clear at the WHO meeting, partly from unpublished data, that existing avian flu viruses already have some of the mutations described in the two studies, and that "there is already a substantial immediate risk to humans," the editorial states. In view of all this, it says, the biosecurity objections to publishing the full studies "seem too general and hypothetical to justify obstructing publication and further research."

However, further discussion is essential, including a review of the safety conditions in which similar future H5N1 studies should be conducted, the editors say. Committees on lab safety standards in the United States and Europe are now assessing what safety levels are required and may report within a few weeks, they add.

"As was agreed by the journals and the lead authors at the meeting, publication of the papers must wait at least for the outcome of those discussions," the editorial continues. "There may yet be regulatory or legal obstacles to publication, or biosecurity or biosafety risks sufficient to outweigh the health risks. Otherwise, it is Nature's view that the papers should ultimately be published in full."

See also:

Feb 22 Nature editorial

Feb 17 CIDRAP News story "WHO H5N1 study group extends moratorium, calls for full publication"

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