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WHO Meeting Decides To Extend Moratorium On Bird Flu Research, Delay Full Publication Of Two Studies Detailing Lab-Modified Strains

A group of 22 public health and influenza experts reached a consensus on Friday at a WHO-convened meeting regarding the work of two research teams that created genetically altered strains of the H5N1 bird flu virus that are easily transmissible among ferrets, a laboratory model for humans, a WHO press release reports (2/17). “In December, the [U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity] asked two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science, to withhold details of the research for fear it could be used by bioterrorists,” Reuters writes, adding that on January 20, flu researchers also imposed a 60-day moratorium on continuing research using highly pathogenic strains (Nebehay/Kelland, 2/17). At the meeting, the group agreed to “extending the temporary moratorium on research with new laboratory-modified H5N1 viruses and recogni[zed] that research on naturally occurring H5N1 influenza virus must continue in order to protect public health,” the press release states, adding that they “also came to a consensus that delayed publication of the entire manuscripts would have more public health benefit than urgently partially publishing” (2/17).

However, the meeting “ended … without any firm deadline for when the two studies … should be published or how long a research moratorium should last,” according to the Wall Street Journal (Hobson, 2/17). “The moratorium on the research and its publication will be extended, probably for several months, according to Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the health organization’s assistant director general for health security and the environment, who spoke at a news conference after the two-day meeting in Geneva,” the New York Times writes (Grady, 2/17). According to the WHO press release, “Broad issues raised, but not limited to, these research studies will be discussed at future meetings convened by WHO soon with participation by a broader range of experts and interested parties relevant to these issues” (2/17).

Additional coverage of the meeting, including reaction from participants, is available from CNN’s “The Chart,” GlobalPost, the Globe and Mail, KPLU’s “Humanosphere,” and the U.N. News Centre.

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