Experts have revealed that divides have emerged between the US and world response on whether to publish or keep secret the details of a mutant bird flu virus.
But that split could be resolved when new data, including how the disease is not as lethal as widely believed, is considered in an upcoming meeting of the US-based advisory panel which initially urged the details be withheld from science journals.
AdvertisementThe saga began late last year when a panel of US scientists and biosecurity experts reviewed two studies that showed how an engineered bird flu, or H5N1 virus, could be transmitted in the air between ferrets in a lab.
The conclusion of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) was that the data was too risky to be issued to the general public and could spark a deadly pandemic if the flu escaped or were unleashed by malevolent players.
However, a meeting of international flu experts in Geneva earlier this month came to the opposite conclusion, agreeing that the data should eventually be published in full, after more consideration is given to the potential risks.
In those Geneva talks, there was "new data and a significant amount of time for cross-discussion to clarify issues," said Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fauci, who was part of the Geneva talks, told a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology Biodefense and Emerging Diseases meeting in Washington that the NSABB would reconvene to discuss the newest data.
"There was obviously a disagreement in recommendation between the NSABB and the Geneva group and we wanted to make sure all the data and all the discussion is balanced between both," said Fauci.
In the meantime, US health authorities stand by the original NSABB stance that the research should not be published in full, and the US endorses just one element of the WHO consensus: to extend a moratorium on such research.
While NSABB members said it was too early to guess what the US advisory panel's next decision will be, one of the lead flu researchers, the Netherlands' Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC, stressed that the dangers have been overblown in the media.
"The animals get a little bit of flu but they do not drop dead," he said of his lab experiments on ferrets, noting that just one in eight animals got sick from being sneezed on or coughed on by a sick neighbor.
Also, if ferrets had already been exposed to seasonal flu they were fully protected against the mutant bird flu in his studies.
"Very few individuals would develop severe disease," he said.
H5N1 is known to be highly lethal in birds, and among known cases in humans it has killed nearly 60 percent of its victims, according to the World Health Organization.