WHO Will Take A Role In Solving Issue Raised By Bird Flu Studies Controversy
By Helen Branswell THE CANADIAN PRESSFeatures Profiles Researchers
January 16, 2012 – The World Health Organization says it will take a role in helping sort through an international scientific controversy over two bird flu studies that the U.S. government says are too dangerous to publish in full.
January 16, 2012 – The World
Health Organization says it will take a role in helping sort through an
international scientific controversy over two bird flu studies that
the U.S. government says are too dangerous to publish in full.
The scientific and biosecurity communities have been mired in heated debate over the issue and many have been calling on the WHO to take a lead role in the discussions, saying any solution must be international in scope.
In an interview Sunday, a senior WHO official said the agency will pull together international talks aimed at fleshing out the short-and long-term issues that need to be addressed and then work to resolve them.
"It's the right organization to bring … balance to the discussion to make sure that the technical and scientific and the political and the public health concerns are all brought together," Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security and environment, told The Canadian Press.
But he insisted thoughtful deliberations will be needed to ensure that short-term solutions don't cause more problems over the long run.
"It's genuinely a set of difficult and very important questions," said Fukuda, a leading influenza epidemiologist.
"And I just very, very much want to make sure that we don't go off on one tangent or another, pulled by one loud voice saying 'this is the issue' when in fact there are several different issues. And that we do a good job about addressing them all."
Weeks of behind-the-scenes wrangling and debates erupted into the public view just before Christmas when the U.S. government announced its National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity had recommended two studies on H5N1 transmission should not be published in full.
The papers were slated to be published in the leading journals Science and Nature.
The research, led by virologists Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reports on how the dangerous virus could be pushed to evolve to the point where it is easily transmissible among ferrets.
Ferrets are considered the best animal model for predicting how influenza viruses will act in people. Many involved in this debate caution that a virus that spreads among sneezing ferrets might not also transmit easily among people.
But it is simply impossible to test the viruses in humans – the work would be far too dangerous and completely unethical. So the scientific community has to assume the lab-made viruses may be able to do what H5N1 viruses in nature have so far failed to do – spread easily from person to person.
Many scientists have denounced the U.S. move as censorship. And in commentaries published in the journal Nature, several called on the WHO to take a lead role in finding a way through the quagmire.
Fouchier, and Ab Osterhaus, head of the department of virology at the Erasmas Medical Centre, argued in one of the commentaries that it isn't up to the United States to dictate to the rest of the world on this issue.
"We don't know the worldwide opinion until a group of experts from all parts of the globe is formed," they wrote. "An issue this big should not be decided by one country, but by all of us."
The WHO, which has been involved in behind the scenes talks, said it will help to make that happen.
"We will pull together the discussions … from the consultations that we believe are needed both to address the immediate issues but also make sure that we don't miss any of the long-term issues and that those are also addressed," Fukuda said.
The journals have reluctantly agreed to publish the papers in abbreviated form.
They agreed on the proviso that a system is set up that allows the technical details of the work to be shared with other scientists and perhaps public health authorities on a need-to-know basis.
It is believed the journals may publish the papers later this month. But putting together the system to decide who can see the full works and how the details can be safely shared may take several months.
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