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WHO to lead talks on controversial H5N1 studies

A World Health Organization (WHO) official said the agency will play a role in leading discussions on issues related to controversial H5N1 avian influenza transmission studies, as more experts called for a further global discussion of the issues.

Dr Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of health security and environment at the WHO, said the WHO will organize international talks to define the issues concerning the H5N1 studies and begin resolving them, the Canadian Press (CP) reported on Jan 15.

Two papers that describe mutant forms of H5N1 that were easily transmissible among ferrets have been submitted to journals, and the scientific and biosecurity communities have been at odds over whether the complete details should be published. The concern is that publication of the full papers could lead to the unleashing of a highly dangerous virus either through criminal activity or a lab accident.

Fukuda told the CP that the WHO is the right agency to ensure that discussions reflect balanced perspectives that take into account technical, scientific, public health, and political considerations. The WHO itself has voiced concern that H5N1 research like the two studies now at issue could threaten a new virus-sharing agreement that took effect in May 2011.

"It's genuinely a set of difficult and very important questions," Fukuda said.

One of the as-yet-unpublished H5N1 studies, by a team led by Dr. Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University in the Netherlands, was submitted to Science. The other, led by Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Tokyo, was submitted to Nature.

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