A small — in relative terms — group of technical experts will be invited to Geneva in mid-February to begin the difficult task of trying to break an impasse arising from the proposed publication of controversial bird flu research, the World Health Organization revealed Saturday.
The controversy was ignited when a U.S. government panel recommended two scientific journals be asked to withhold parts of studies that reportedly show how the H5N1 flu virus can be made more transmissible.
A senior WHO official said the meeting will likely involve fewer than 50 people and is tentatively slated for Feb. 16 and 17, though the dates aren't yet firm.
Participants will include representatives of the Dutch and American research teams that conducted the studies, experts from WHO's network of influenza laboratories and people with first-hand involvement in the dispute.
"We are not setting this up as a political meeting. We are setting this up as a meeting of extremely knowledgeable technical people," said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security and environment.
The aim of the gathering will be to identify the short- and long-term issues that need to be resolved and start work on those that are most critical.
"In a sense it's a way to tease through the complexity and make this a discussion that can lead to some — hopefully — good solutions," Fukuda said in an interview from Geneva.
The controversy stems from research that revealed that the H5N1 virus can evolve to spread more easily among ferrets — the best animal model for predicting how flu viruses will act in people — and the recommendation of U.S. government biosecurity advisers that the work is too dangerous to publish in full.
The U.S. asked the two journals slated to publish the research, Science and Nature, to withhold the guts of the studies.
They and the two research teams have reluctantly agreed, on the condition a system is set up to share the full details with those who have a legitimate need to see the work, such as other flu researchers or public health laboratories that conduct flu surveillance.
Many scientists have criticized the recommendation from the U.S. panel, known as the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity or NSABB. And many have insisted that any move to craft long-term policies over what is acceptable research on H5N1 or other dangerous viruses must have broad international involvement and buy in.
Ron Fouchier is among them. Fouchier, the Dutch virologist whose laboratory conducted one of the disputed studies, has said firmly that this cannot be a process in which the United States dictates to the world.
But on Saturday, he said the idea of kicking off the process with a smallish meeting is a sensible approach.
"One can not start a debate with 100s. Best to identify potential discussion points and stumbling blocks with a small group," Fouchier, who works at Rotterdam's Erasmus Medical Centre, said via email.
"In this round, I hope that everyone can put the cards on the table quickly."
On Friday, Fouchier and 38 other leading flu scientists attempted to pave the ground for productive talks by announcing they were voluntarily suspending H5N1 transmission studies for 60 days.
Lab analysis of H5N1 viruses for surveillance will continue during the period, but research aimed at figuring out why the virus doesn't currently spread well among people, and what changes might give it that power, will not be done.
While the move was a good-faith offering, it was also a strategic one. There were fears if influenza researchers hadn't taken the initiative, there might have been political efforts in Washington to impose restrictions on what work can be done with these viruses.
Much of the high-level H5N1 research work is conducted with U.S. government funding, either through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) or at the Centers for Disease Control. For example, Fouchier's work was done with funds from the NIAID.
Fukuda said the WHO welcomed the moratorium, suggesting it sets the right tone for helping to find solutions. "I think it's a good way to get everything started. It gives everybody a little bit of space to move."
That said, Fukuda acknowledged finding solutions won't be easy. At this point, many participants will be approaching the talks with firmly fixed views. There appears to be little common ground.
"This is really going to be a process. This is going to be a process over time," Fukuda cautioned.
"We very much see this as an important first step for breaking through entrenched views, for making sure that whatever is decided to be done is balanced ... None of these are simple issues and they ought to all be informed by the fact that there are several different implications for any of these issues."
The issues include whether further transmission studies should be conducted, what work can be done on the viruses created by the two teams, how many people have a real need to see the full studies, who should run the vetting process and how the withheld information can be conveyed to those approved to see it.
Another issue that will likely be on the table is whether future work with these viruses should be limited to labs with the highest biosafety and biosecurity designations, known as BSL4 laboratories. Fouchier and the American team, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, did their work in labs with BSL3-plus designations.
Neither team has a BSL4 lab at their institution. And Fouchier has insisted upping the requirement is neither necessary nor helpful. He said dozens of researchers have worked with H5N1 viruses in BSL3-plus labs since 1997 — when the first outbreak in people occurred — and there have been no lab accidents involving the virus.
"If we move this up to (BSL) 4, the research will suffer," he said in an interview Friday.
Fukuda suggested a larger follow-up meeting involving a more varied cast of players might be arranged later, depending on the outcome of the February gathering.
He wouldn't give a time frame for that larger meeting, which would likely have the international involvement that flu scientists have been calling for.