The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has asked the journals Nature and Science to publish redacted versions of the studies by two research groups that reportedly created forms of the H5N1 avian flu that could easily jump between ferrets — typically considered a sign that the virus could spread quickly among humans.
The journals are objecting to the request, saying it would restrict access to information that might advance the cause of public health.
The request was a first for the expert panel, formed after a series of anthrax attacks on US targets in 2001. It advises the Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies about “dual use” research that could serve public health but also be a potential bioterror threat.
The virus, A(H5N1), causes bird flu, which rarely infects people but has an extraordinarily high death rate when it does. Since the virus was first detected in 1997, about 600 people have contracted it, and more than half have died.
Nearly all have caught it from birds, and most cases have been in Asia. Scientists have watched the virus, worrying that if it developed the ability to spread easily from person to person, it could create one of the deadliest pandemics ever.
According to the journals, two research labs have submitted papers showing how to make the virus more transmissible in humans, and the NSABB, an independent expert committee that advises the Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies, wants to keep this information from falling into the wrong hands.
The articles involved work done by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist, and Dr Ron Fouchier and colleagues from the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam.
The National Institutes of Health said in a statement the HHS agreed with the panel’s assessment and provided the journals with non-binding recommendations to withhold key elements of the studies, but said the government is working out a system to allow secure access to the information to those with a legitimate need to see it.
“NSABB has never before recommended to restrict communications on research that NSABB has reviewed that has potential dual use implications,” Dr Amy Patterson, director of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Biotechnology Activities, said in a statement.
Scientists and journal editors are generally adamant about protecting the free flow of ideas and information, and ready to fight anything that hints at censorship.
“I wouldn’t call this censorship,” Dr. Alberts said. “This is trying to avoid inappropriate censorship. It’s the scientific community trying to step out front and be responsible.”
He said there was legitimate cause for the concern about the researchers’ techniques falling into the wrong hands.
“This finding shows it’s much easier to evolve this virus to an extremely dangerous state where it can be transmitted in aerosols than anybody had recognized,” he said. Transmission by aerosols means the virus can be spread through the air via coughing or sneezing.
“It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers,” according to a statement issued by Dr. Philip Campbell, editor in chief of Nature.
“We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled.”
Dr Bruce Alberts, editor in chief of Science, said the advisory board asked the journal to delete details on the scientific methods and specific mutations of the virus before publishing an article by Fouchier and colleagues.
“The NSABB has emphasised the need to prevent the details of the research from falling into the wrong hands,” Alberts said in a statement.
He said scientists who study influenza have a need to know the details of the research to protect the public. He said Science was evaluating how best to proceed.
“Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the US government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety,” Alberts said. [via The New York Times, Reuters and Guardian]