WHO hopes for meeting on dual-use research in late fall

May 30, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – The World Health Organization (WHO) hopes to hold a meeting late this fall to discuss "dual-use" research issues raised in the controversy over publication of two studies involving lab-modified H5N1 viruses with increased transmissibility, a WHO official said today.

"We hope to hold a second meeting to discuss the broader concerns related to potential dual [use] research in the late fall, if resources are available," Keiji Fukuda, MD, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security and environment, told CIDRAP News.

The WHO hosted a closed meeting of disease experts and government officials Feb 16 and 17 to discuss the two H5N1 studies.

The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) had recommended late last year that key data from both studies be withheld from publication, over concern that divulging it could lead to the intentional or accidental release of dangerous viruses. But in late March, after studying revised versions of the research papers, the board reversed itself and approved of publishing both reports.

"Dual use" refers to research that can be used for both good and malicious purposes.

One of the studies, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, DVM, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin, was published earlier this month in Nature. The other, led by Ron Fouchier, PhD, of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, is still awaiting publication in Science.

Yesterday the WHO released a brief statement about its activities related to the H5N1 research controversy since the February meeting in Geneva. Most of the participants in that meeting had supported publishing the studies in full.

"WHO is planning an international consultation on broader issues highlighted by the debate surrounding the two H5N1 research studies," the agency said. "A discussion engaging multiple stakeholders, including the scientific, public health and security communities, government agencies, international agencies, and the public is envisaged."

NSABB members and many other experts have spoken of the need for an international approach to develop policies on the publication of dual-use research reports.

The WHO statement also said the WHO launched in March a "comprehensive communications plan focusing on the two H5N1-affected countries and other member states." The aims included improving understanding of H5N1 research, ensuring that member countries had information to respond to public anxiety about biosafety and biosecurity issues related to the lab-modified viruses, and supporting the continuation of responsible research with appropriate safeguards.

The statement did not name the two "H5N1-affected countries." Fukuda said the reference was to the countries that provided the H5N1 viruses used in the two studies, but he didn't identify them either.

Kawaoka's report says his team used a 2004 H5N1 isolate from Vietnam. Fouchier's report has not yet been published, but it appears from previously published material that the H5N1 isolate he used came from Indonesia.

For example, in a ScienceInsider interview in January, Fouchier said, "As researchers, we work very closely with people in Indonesia. It would be very unwise for us not to share our results with our close collaborators."

Also, an Erasmus team that included Fouchier published a study in May 2011 that involved exposing ferrets to a 2005 H5N1 virus from Indonesia. The report appeared in the American Journal of Pathology.

Regarding the WHO's communication efforts in the countries that supplied the viruses, Fukuda said the agency worked directly "with those two governments on understanding the key awareness gaps in those countries and to provide the right information."

See also:

May 29 WHO statement

Jan 20 ScienceInsider story

May 2011 Am J Pathol abstract

May 3 CIDRAP News story "Report details changes that may boost H5N1 spread in mammals"

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

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