December 21st, 2011
05:39 PM ET
A genetically altered strain of the H5N1 avian flu virus is at the center of a controversial request to keep the details of its creation under wraps.
Scientists in Wisconsin and the Netherlands each created a strain of the influenza virus that is both highly lethal and easily transmitted between ferrets. Ferrets are the animals that most closely mimic the human response to the flu.
The Dutch paper, on the transmissibility of H5N1, was to be published in the journal Science and the University of Wisconsin study was to be published in the journal Nature. But the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an independent committee that advises the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies on biosecurity matters reviewed the manuscripts and expressed concern about the release of some of the data.
"We did not think that these papers should be published in the form that we saw them and that the methods and results should be removed to prevent someone else from directly replicating their experiments," Dr. Paul Keim, a microbiologist and chair of NSABB said. "The avian flu is one of the scariest pathogens that is on the horizon and its transmissibility in mammals is a step toward transmissibility in human populations. The flu could be transmissible from human to human and that could happen in nature or perhaps it could happen in a laboratory. Whether from a natural source or a nefarious source this would not be a good thing for the world."
Keim says while there is no legal consequence to publishing the papers, the fact that the virus has a documented 60% mortality rate cannot be understated. "The worse case scenarios with this particular pathogen are devastating. It's a high mortality virus and it's a virus that could go global. It's something that we, the scientific community, have been worried for almost a decade."
The board also has recommended there be an international communication between policy makers, scientists and governments to set policy in this area so that future decisions are not made solely by scientists and journals.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, which funded the studies. He says such requests are not unheard of. "This is not the first time that a request has been made of the NSABB to look at a paper for dual use potential and possible holding back of information. It is, however, the first time that the NSABB has made such a recommendation for any paper."
Both journals and the investigators are now working on new manuscripts. Keim said ultimately the content will be up to them. "This is really a decision between the journals and their scientific investigators. But we all need to have a discussion on how these experiments are done and how the results are communicated. This has to be an international discussion."
In a statement Tuesday, Science Editor-in-Chief Dr. Bruce Alberts said: " We strongly support the work of the NSABB and the importance of its mission for advancing science to serve society." At the same time, however, Alberts says he has concerns about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers. "Many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus."
But according to Dr. Michael T. Osterholm , who also is a NSABB board member and Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, this is not about censorship.
"We all agree that the ultimate original sin is censorship but we also understand that there is a way to move critical information to those who have a need to know without informing the entire world. What I mean by the entire world, particularly those individuals who may want to try to duplicate this work and that virus somehow get into the population." Osterholm said. "The efforts we have really undertaken is to try to find that right middle point. How do we make sure that the right information is moved to the people who need to know but not in the hands of those who could use it for unfortunate purposes. How easily could this get into the hands of terrorists or anyone who might want to do harm with it?
And Fauci says they are working on a remedy that will allow other researchers to access the data. "We (the U.S.government with the NIH doing the first draft) are working on a process that will hopefully be ready by the time of publication of the manuscripts (late January early February) whereby scientists, health officials, and others who have a legitimate need to know the precise details of the experiments can have access to them."
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