By Simeon Bennett
Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) — Bird flu experts meeting in Geneva agreed to allow the publication of two studies that alarmed U.S. security officials by showing how to make the deadly H5N1 virus easily transmissible.
The publication of the papers will be delayed to allow a better explanation to the public of why the work is necessary, said Ron Fouchier, who led one of the research groups at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Research on the viruses will also continue, though a moratorium on the work will remain in place until health officials agree on the circumstances under which the research should be done.
“The consensus of this meeting is that in the interests of public health the full paper should be published,” Fouchier said at a press conference today at the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva. “We now have full support from the influenza community at large that this work is important, that it can be done safely. What else could a scientist like me hope for?”
The H5N1 strain of avian influenza has infected at least 584 people in 15 countries since 2003, killing almost 60 percent of them, according to the WHO. Most victims have had direct contact with infected birds, and the virus hasn’t so far shown a capacity to spread easily from person to person.
Still, flu viruses mutate constantly, causing scientists and health authorities to fear that one such genetic change may make H5N1 more contagious among humans, touching off a pandemic that could kill millions.
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