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Fri February 17, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Questions About Bird Flu Research Swirl Around Private WHO Meeting

Originally published on Fri February 17, 2012 8:37 am

A closed-door meeting to discuss controversial bird flu research is drawing to a close at the World Health Organization in Geneva, and the WHO plans to publicly report on what happened once it's officially over.

"We're very aware that there's a lot of interest in the meeting and that people will want to know, you know, what were the issues that were discussed and did you come to any consensus," the WHO's Keiji Fukuda noted before the meeting began. "So we will try to make that as clear as possible as quickly as possible."

The international gathering comes as the scientific community is divided about the risks and benefits of experiments that generated genetically altered bird flu viruses.

Critics say the newly created viruses are dangerous — that if the germs escaped or were used deliberately as a bioweapon, they could potentially kill large numbers of people.

Supporters of the work say the dangers have been exaggerated and that the research is essential to understanding how bird flu circulating out in the wild might someday mutate and cause a pandemic.

Before the meeting, Fukuda cautioned that it was not expected to address all of the questions surrounding the bird flu research.

"What we'll try to do is look at some of the more urgent specific issues at this meeting, and then take those broader issues and then try to address those at a later, broader process," Fukuda said.

There are major questions swirling around these bird flu experiments: Should the scientific manuscripts describing them be published openly, or would that just give bioterrorists ideas? If some of the information is kept under wraps, how will legitimate researchers get access to it? Should experiments like this continue to be done and, if so, under what conditions in terms of lab safety and international oversight?

The group that has gathered in Geneva is small — about two-dozen people from around the world. It includes scientists whose labs did the work, other flu virologists, government officials, a couple of editors from science journals that want to publish the manuscripts, and one expert on research ethics.

The meeting is not open to the public, and participants have signed confidentiality agreements, because the discussion involves details of the two unpublished flu experiments that have raised concerns.

Last month, flu researchers voluntarily declared a 60-day moratorium on any further experiments that use these new viruses. They also agreed not to make any more like them for now. But the 60-day pause is almost half over, and the key issues remain unresolved.

"Right now what we have is a moratorium, and we have clearly defined positions on both sides of the debate, but what we need now is a process for resolving that dilemma," says Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

He's pleased that the WHO is starting that process, and says if this type of bird flu research is to continue, it should do so with international oversight — much like the WHO oversees research with smallpox.

The question of how to control legitimate biological research that could potentially be misused for weapons is nothing new. For a decade after Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks, there were all kinds of meetings and discussions about what kind of oversight might be needed for such "dual-use" research, says Elisa Harris of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.

She says she finds the bird flu situation "a bit frustrating because we could have foreseen that, at some point in time, we would be confronted with a situation like this."

Neither the U. S. government nor the WHO took any action that would have prevented it, says Harris. And it remains to be seen whether the process that started this week in Geneva will lead to a new look at those wider issues, beyond bird flu.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When scientists recently announced they'd taken bird flu viruses and genetically altered them, it caused something of an uproar. Other scientists feared these newly created viruses could be dangerous. That if the germs escaped or were used deliberately as a bioweapon they could potentially kill large numbers of people.

A meeting on some of this controversial scientific research is drawing to a close at the World Health Organization in Geneva. It's unclear what will come out of that Geneva meeting, but NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports it's likely just the start of what will be a larger international discussion.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: There are major questions swirling around these bird flu viruses. Should the scientific manuscripts describing them be published openly or would that just give bioterrorists ideas. If some of the information is kept under wraps how will legitimate researchers get access to it? They want to understand bird flu, because it exists out in the wild and could evolve in dangerous ways.

But should experiments like this continue to be done, and if so, under what laboratory safety conditions? Not all of that will be resolved in one short meeting.

KEIJI FUKUDA: And what we'll try to do is look at some of the more urgent specific issues at this meeting, and then take those broader issues and then try to address those at a later, broader process.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Keiji Fukuda is a WHO official and an expert on pandemic flu. Before the meeting started, he said it would carefully examine the two flu experiments that have caused the uproar.

FUKUDA: Really, to start small, establish the facts, not just jump into the, you know, larger debates right away, and then move on from there.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's a small group that's gathered in Geneva, about two dozen people from around the world. There's the scientist whose labs did the work, plus other flu virologists, government officials, a couple science journal editors and one expert on research ethics. The meeting is not open to the public. Participants have signed confidentiality agreements.

FUKUDA: We're very aware that there's a lot of interest in the meeting and that people will want to know, you know, what were the issues that were discussed and did you come to any consensus. So we will try to, you know, make that as clear as possible as quickly as possible.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Last month, flu researchers voluntarily declared a 60-day moratorium on any further experiments that use these new viruses. They also agreed not to make any more like them for now. But the 60 day pause is almost half over and the scientific community is still divided on whether the risks of this research outweigh the benefits. So some people are relieved that the WHO has stepped in. Thomas Inglesby is head of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

THOMAS INGLESBY: Right now what we have is a moratorium, and we have clearly defined positions on both sides of the debate, but what we need now is a process for resolving the dilemma.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks if this type of bird flu research is to continue, it should do so with international oversight, much like the WHO oversees research with small pox.

The question of how to control legitimate biological research that could pose serious risks is nothing new. Elisa Harris is with the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. She says, for a decade after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, there were all kinds of meetings and discussions. That's why she finds the situation with bird flu frustrating.

ELISA HARRIS: Because we could have foreseen that, at some point in time, we would be confronted with a situation like this.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But she says neither the U.S. government nor the WHO took any action that would've prevented it. And it remains to be seen if the process that started this week in Geneva will lead to a new look at those wider issues beyond bird flu.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.