THE stalemate over controversial influenza research has dragged on for months now. It all began when researchers in Rotterdam and Wisconsin created a more contagious form of bird flu. Then, in December, American security officials asked the world’s most prestigious journals, Science and Nature, not to publish their full findings. Last month the scientists agreed to put their work on hold until they had explained their research properly and a consensus had been reached about how to proceed.
Some clarity was supposed to come this week. The World Health Organisation (WHO) organised a small meeting on February 16th and 17th, including both the scientists, Ron Fouchier of Rotterdam’s Erasmus Medical Centre and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as Paul Keim, the head of America’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which recommended censoring the research in the first place. The meeting was meant to provide at least a rough road map. Unsurprisingly, though, the outlook is as muddy as ever.
Keiji Fukuda, who oversees health security at the WHO, held a conference call with reporters this evening in Switzerland. The meeting, he said, had two important outcomes. First, everyone agreed that it was too hard to publish a redacted (or censored) version of the papers. Who would decide which bits to excise? Which principles would guide the redactors’ work?
Second, Dr Fukuda said that everyone agreed that research into H5N1 is important. For a start the work proves that the virus can indeed become more contagious. The question, then, is what next? The moratorium on research, which the boffins imposed on themselves in January, will continue. The plan, if one can call it that, seems to be to publish the papers after the WHO and others have done enough public-relations work to calm those hysterical about a pandemic. That might take a while.
Jegarakshagan Gokul, Jegarakshagan