ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The scientific community remains divided over recent experiments over the bird flu virus. Critics say the research created mutant viruses that could cause a dangerous pandemic in people if they got out of the lab. And experts can't agree on whether details of the work should be made public.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that today the scientists at the center of the controversy tried to clear up some misconceptions.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: At seven o'clock this morning, a ballroom at a fancy hotel in Washington, D.C. was crowded with scientists. They were attending a meeting organized by the American Society for Microbiology, and everyone had woken up early to see a presentation by Ron Fouchier. He's a virologist at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands.
For months, a mutant virus created in his lab has been in the headlines. Some experts say a release of this virus could be catastrophic. But Fouchier doesn't see it that way.
DR. RON FOUCHIER: Certainly, this would not be a virus that would kill half of the world population, as we've seen in the lay press time and time again. That is clearly, clearly wrong.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: His lab created the modified virus as part of its research on the bird flu virus, H5N1. H5N1 circulates in birds out in the wild. People rarely get it but when they do they often die. So far, six people haven't been contagious, but public health experts fear the virus might naturally evolve and start spreading like regular flu.
Fouchier wanted to see if that was a real possibility. His experiment showed that certain genetic changes did make the virus spread through coughs and sneezes, at least in ferrets and ferrets are the laboratory stand-in for people. But Fouchier says it did not seem to spread very easily.
FOUCHIER: And so, to then extrapolate that this virus would spread like wildfire in humans is really, really far-fetched at this stage.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He said the virus could be lethal if high doses were put directly into the animals' respiratory tract. But ferrets who got the virus from the coughing or sneezing of other ferrets did not die.
FOUCHIER: If the ferrets received virus via aerosol route, we have never seen severe disease in the ferrets.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Fouchier could not go into many details about his work. It hasn't yet been published in a science journal and publication is in limbo. That's because of the conflicting recommendations of two high profile committees. One of them advises the U.S. government on biology that could be misused. It said some parts of this work should be kept secret so the recipe will not fall into the wrong hands.
But now, government officials want that committee to take another look because, two weeks ago, an expert panel convened by the World Health Organization came to a different conclusion. It called for full publication, saying this research will help public health efforts to prepare for a possible pandemic if the bird flu virus mutates in the wild.
Michael Osterholm is an infectious disease expert with the University of Minnesota who serves on the committee that wanted to keep some details under wraps. He says it's impossible to predict if that group will see things differently this time around.
MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: I can't prejudge that. We really need to wait and see what other information might be provided. I know with great confidence that the entire board will come with an open mind, but based on a set of scientific principles, and we'll look at it again.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That reassessment may come as soon as next month. For now, researchers around the world have put a voluntary moratorium on all work with these viruses.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.