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International Meeting On Controversial Bird Flu Research Draws Near

H5N1 avian flu viruses (seen in gold) grow inside canine kidney cells (seen in green).
Cynthia Goldsmith
H5N1 avian flu viruses (seen in gold) grow inside canine kidney cells (seen in green).

The World Health Organization has just one week left to prepare for a highly anticipated meeting on controversial bird flu research. One official says that 22 invitations have gone out and the WHO is still waiting to hear back from some of the invitees.

Recent experiments involving the H5N1 bird flu virus have caused a furor in the science community, and the WHO was urged to convene an international discussion.

The scientists, journal editors and others who attend are expected to review the facts and the most pressing issues related to this specific work, rather than have a broader discussion about the possibility of international oversight of potentially worrisome biological research.

Critics of the experiments say scientists took a potentially deadly bird flu virus and tweaked it in ways that could make it contagious between people. They worry that the altered virus might escape the lab and cause a global pandemic, and that openly publishing details of the work in a scientific journal could provide terrorists with a recipe for a bioweapon.

Other scientists say the possible risks have been exaggerated and that the research is important for public health.

On Jan. 20, top influenza researchers announced that they were putting a voluntary 60-day moratorium on doing any further experiments with these viruses or creating any new ones. Publication of manuscripts describing the work is on hold as well.

Twenty-two people have been invited to an initial meeting at WHO headquarters in Geneva, which will be held Feb. 16 and 17, says Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for Health Security and Environment at the WHO. But on Wednesday, he said, they were still not fully sure of all of the people who will be coming.

The public isn't invited. "We won't be able to have it open to the public because of the nature of the information to be gone over," says Fukuda, noting that attendees will be discussing unpublished details of the experiments.

He described it as a "fact-finding, context-setting" meeting aimed at identifying the most pressing issues related to this research. "What we've tried to do is invite people who are directly involved with either conducting the research or who have, for example, a role in publishing the research," Fukuda says.

Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of the journal Science, which wants to publish one of the bird flu manuscripts in some form, says the deputy editor from the journal will attend the event. He said on Wednesday morning he had received an email with a list of some attendees. "They're from all around the world," Alberts said.

Other attendees will be people who have formally reviewed the research, such as Paul Keim, acting chair of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. Late last year, in an unprecedented move, the NSABB recommended that key details of the work should not be publicly revealed when researchers publish on their findings.

On the day of the meeting, Fukuda says, the WHO will post the names of the attendees. And soon after the meeting, the organization will post a report on what was discussed and any consensus that was reached.

The most urgent, practical issues that could be discussed at the WHO meeting include things like how the research could be published without revealing sensitive information, while still allowing the full findings to be available to public health researchers around the world. Discussions may also cover what additional research should go forward on the lab-created viruses — and under what conditions.

Some experts say the viruses should be moved to a lab with the highest possible security and that any future experiments should be tightly controlled. Others argue that's unnecessary and that allowing work to go forward will reveal information about flu viruses and how they evolve that's important for protecting the public's health.

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Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.