The full details of controversial research that led to the creation of a highly infectious form of birdflu virus – including the precise DNA sequence of the five mutations that transformed the virus – will be published despite fears that the work could be misused by bioterrorists, scientists said today.
Professor Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, who carried out the work leading to the creation of an “airborne” strain of H5N1 birdflu, said that he has been given the official go-ahead to publish the full details of his experiment after he had revised the original research paper, which was blocked last year.
Speaking to journalists in London for the first time since the controversy erupted in December, Professor Fouchier said all the details of the experiment that led to the birdflu virus becoming transmissible between laboratory ferrets can now be put into the public domain after receiving the approval by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.
Professor Fouchier said that nothing has been omitted or redacted from the revised manuscript although it has been extensively re-written to clarify certain issues, for instance the fact that the laboratory ferrets did not all die after they had become infected with the airborne strain of H5N1.
“I did say that its one of the most dangerous viruses, and it’s the truth because these viruses are a little scary. If they go airborne they can cause pandemics and pandemic flu has killed millions of people,” Professor Fouchier said.
It is believed that certain members of the advisory board had been led to believe that the ferrets in the experiment had all died as a result of being infected, and that this was an important factor leading to its recommendation to the US Government, which paid for the study, to block publication in the journal Science.
“The information was in the original paper but perhaps it was not as clear as it should have been. Our virus does not kill ferrets when it is in aerosol. This was in the original manuscript but it was not spelt out,” he said.
Professor Fouchier said the revised manuscript makes it clear that the virus is not as lethal to ferrets as originally believed. However, the full genetic sequence of the transformed virus will be published along with the steps leading up the creation of the airborne strain, he said.
The experiment involved mutating the H5N1 virus and using it to repeatedly infect ferrets, which react biologically to flu viruses in much the same way as humans. The result was a birdflu strain that could be passed from ferret to ferret in coughs and sneezes, which until then was thought to be impossible.
Although a majority of the members of the biosecurity advisory board now felt that the benefits of publishing the research outweighed the risks, six scientists on the 18-strong panel refused to endorse full publication.
Other scientists, meanwhile, have said that the work should never have been carried out on the grounds that the risks of generating a lethal pandemic birdflu either accidentally or deliberately far outweigh any possible benefits.
Professor Fouchier said that he had started the H5N1 experiments in 2007 but it was only last summer that he had succeeded in creating an airborne strain that could be transmitted easily between ferrets.
“We did not take it lightly in deciding to communicate these results,” he said.
It was only after he had submitted the manuscript to Science that the work was shown to the biosecurity board who interviewed Professor Fouchier for 45 minutes by video phone before coming to their decision to recommend withholding key details of the research from publication.
Professor Paul Keim, the chairman of the advisory board, said that with hindsight it would have probably been better to interview Professor Fouchier face to face in order to address any ambiguities about the lethality of the mutated virus.
“In this area there is always going to be uncertainty. It’s balancing the uncertainties that’s difficult,” Professor Keim said.
Professor Sir John Skehel, a world authority on flu viruses, said that just because the mutated H5N1 virus was not lethal to ferrets it cannot be assumed that the same will be true in humans.
“Ferrets are the best animal model we have but there is a majority opinion among scientists that they wouldn’t always tell you what would happen in humans,” Professor Skehel said.