Shots - Health Blog
8:49 am
Thu February 16, 2012

The 'WHO's Who' Of Virologists Meet To Talk Bird Flu In Geneva

A closed-door summit on controversial bird flu research starts today, and the newly released guest list reveals that the event will be dominated by virologists.

Erasmus Medical Center's Ron Fouchier, one of the virologists whose experiments with bird flu drew attention in the first place, will be there. So will his boss, Albert Osterhaus, head of the virology department at Erasmus in the Netherlands.

The gathering at the World Health Organization in Geneva also includes one expert on research ethics. And there will be a representative of an advisory committee that recommended keeping certain key details of two bird flu experiments secret, because of fears they could provide bioterrorists with a recipe for how to make a deadly virus that could cause a devastating pandemic.

Editors from science journals will also be there, because they want to publish manuscripts describing those studies in some form. And a few government health and science officials will attend as well.

But mostly, the room will be full of virologists from around the world, including directors of the WHO collaborating centers on influenza from the U.S., Australia, the United Kingdom, China and Japan.

One blogger quipped that it reads like a "WHO's Who of global influenza specialists."

The highly anticipated event has been described as a fact-finding session that will focus on understanding how the bird flu studies done at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin were performed and overseen by the relevant authorities.

The study done in the Netherlands, in particular, has raised an international outcry, as some critics charge that scientists took a virus that can be deadly to people and changed it so that it can now spread through the air like seasonal flu. They say the new virus is potentially so dangerous that it should be moved to a lab with the highest security possible, the kind of place that houses smallpox and Ebola.

Experiments using the lab-altered flu viruses are on hold at the moment, because of a voluntary moratorium by the scientists. And researchers have agreed not to create any more viruses like them, for now.

There are major questions left to be answered: Should the papers describing the studies be published in full? If not, how will sensitive details be released to legitimate flu researchers who need them for public health research? Can this line of bird flu research go on after the temporary moratorium ends? If so, under what conditions in terms of lab safety and under whose oversight?

Whether or not this event will produce any answers isn't clear. It's closed to the press, but a WHO official will brief reporters on Friday after it's over and the participants are headed home.

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