WHO demands publication of the super virus data

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Full publication of research results on H5N1 super virus required

The dispute over the publication of studies on a bird flu virus grown in the laboratory is widening. The World Health Organization (WHO) has now intervened and called for all research results to be published soon.

After the US government prevented the publication of the study results on the dreaded super virus with reference to the danger of bioterrorism, a wide-ranging dispute arose among experts and the public about how to deal with such sensitive research data. Now, as the first official body, the WHO has requested the complete publication of all study details from the studies by Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier on the newly bred H5N1 avian influenza virus. However, the data should only be published at a later date. The delay should be used to better inform the public about the meaning and purpose of such research. In fact, the question arises why such a dangerous super virus was developed at all and whether the building instructions for the extremely deadly and highly contagious virus should be published.

Supervirus stored in high-security laboratories at Erasmus University in Rotterdam The dispute over how to deal with the explosive results from the studies by Ron Fouchier, professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, professor at the US University of Wisconsin, has been going on for months. The reason was the development of a highly dangerous bird flu virus that can be transmitted from person to person like ordinary influenza pathogens. The researchers had developed and examined the human-pathogenic virus from the genus H5N1 in two independent studies. The researchers wanted to publish their results on the pathogens currently stored in Erasmus University's high-security laboratories in Rotterdam in the scientific journals “Science” and “Nature”. But this is where the US Panel on Biosafety (NSABB) intervened for the first time in the history of life sciences and demanded that the research data be kept secret. In order to prevent possible abuse of the pathogen as a biological weapon, the results should not be published, or only in a censored version, according to the US authority. The editors-in-chief of the two science magazines agreed and actually wanted to print an abbreviated version of the studies in mid-March.

Full publication of studies on the bird flu virus being bred However, in the face of renewed advice from the WHO expert panel, the planned publication will be dispensed with for the time being. "That won't happen now," said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science on Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Canada. The WHO expert panel, which also included the two study authors and the chief editors of the science magazines (“Science”; “Nature”), comes to the conclusion that it would not be appropriate to print a censored version. The studies on the super virus should therefore be published in full, because the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. WHO’s senior health security advisor, Keiji Fukuda, said: “The results of this research have clearly shown that the H5N1 virus has the potential to be more easily transmitted between people.” This fact “underscores the importance of it to continue research on this virus, ”said Fukuda. However, before the study details are published, the population must be given more information. The public should be informed about the relevance and benefits of research into the newly developed bird flu virus, also to reduce fears. For the first time, Yoshihiro Kawaoka personally got involved in the discussion about his research results and criticized the fact that the scientists "are currently losing the support of the public", although this "actually benefits from our research".

Better public information required about the novel H5N1 virus According to the recommendations of the WHO expert panel, the specialist journals want to wait a while before the full study details on the newly developed bird flu virus are published. However, the panel of experts does not consider censoring the results, which clearly places WHO against the NSABB's view. The attempt to prevent a publication by the US authority, however, seems quite questionable anyway. On the one hand, research results are there to be discussed or communicated in the professional world, and on the other hand, the US government has co-financed the development of the new highly contagious virus. The warning of possible bio-terrorism also appears in a different light. From this point of view, such a virus should not have been bred, let alone financed with public funds. If, on the other hand, the development of the super virus is intended to provide information about the possible risks of mutant avian influenza (H5N1) and the development of new treatment options, a detailed announcement of the current study results appears to be essential. So far, however, it is unclear whether the researchers will adhere to the WHO's demand for a comprehensive publication. The scientists around the virologists Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka had recently imposed a moratorium on themselves for 60 days in order to rethink the publication of their results against the background of bio-terrorism. However, Kawaoka was confident "to find a solution when people are willing to listen to each other and make their decision based on facts, not fear."

Supervirus - Bioweapon or Help Finding Remedies? The problem faced by the scientists is somewhat reminiscent of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's famous tragicomedy "The Physicists", in which a physicist discovered the so-called "world formula", but tries to keep it secret because he is concerned about misuse by writing as supposedly immersed in a clinic. Here, various opponents (secret service agents who also pretend a mental illness and the chief doctor) try to snatch his knowledge. The play ends tragically and the formula falls into the wrong hands, while "the physicists" remain locked up in the clinic because of their supposed mental disorders. The work shows that there is no possibility of "keeping the conceivable secret" because each "thinking process is repeatable", according to Dürrenmatt's own statement. Applied to the current discussion about the results of the studies by Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, this would mean that their results could sooner or later be reproduced elsewhere. Since the supervirus is already in the laboratory and the data from the corresponding research could theoretically be made public, the only question is what mankind will do with these research results. Whether the pathogen is used more as a biological weapon or for the development of medicinal products is beyond the reach of individual researchers. However, when the results are announced, appropriate preparations can be made that could be effective in the event of misuse of the virus for the purposes of bio-terrorism.

Risk of a pandemic The risk that the newly developed avian flu viruses can pose can only be guessed from the previous figures on avian flu diseases. According to WHO data, only 584 bird flu diseases occur in people worldwide (since 2003). However, 345 patients died as a result of the infection, which corresponds to a death rate of around 60 percent. The bird flu pathogen developed in the laboratory is as life-threatening as the conventional H5N1 viruses, but at the same time it is highly contagious, so that millions of deaths could be recorded worldwide if it spread. The pathogen has the potential for an unprecedented pandemic, according to the experts' unanimous opinion. Misuse as a biological weapon would therefore have catastrophic consequences. So the dispute about how to deal with the current research results is understandable, only a simple solution does not seem in sight.

Expert panel on biosecurity required The aspects of biosecurity have to be reconsidered and checked by an independent expert staff, including the suggestion made by German virus researchers to the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ). Accordingly, a corresponding committee of international, interdisciplinary and intellectual experts would have to discuss the aspects of biosecurity separately. However, the German virus researchers rate the censorship proposed by the NSABB as short-sighted and overly influenced by security concerns. The future body of the "Global Health Security Policy Board" should "not be shaped by the interests of enforcing national security agendas", but rather "open the view to find new answers to global questions," said the biosecurity expert Petra Dieckmann and the virologists Christian Drosten and Stephan Becker told the "FAZ". (fp)

Bioterrorism with new laboratory super virus

Image: Rolf van Melis / pixelio.de

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