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US pressures scientists to censor journal articles on bird flu

Health officials contain a bird flu outbreak in Nepal - but the US fears that deviants could learn from science journals how to mutate the virus into a form readily transmissible to and between humans. AAP/EPA/Narendra Shresth.

Two teams of virologists preparing to publish their research into mutations of avian influenza virus H5N1 are censoring their manuscripts after a US biosecurity agency said that publication of the studies could “enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm”.

The papers will appear in Nature and Science culled of methodological descriptions. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), has also requested that “language be added to the manuscripts to explain better the goals and potential public health benefits of the research, and to detail the extensive safety and security measures taken to protect laboratory workers and the public”.

This incident has sparked debate over the science community’s sharing of information.

Expert reactions below.

Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief, Science

Science editors will be 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.

Responses below made available through the Australian Science Media Centre.

Dr Jake Dunning and Professor Peter Openshaw, Centre for Respiratory Infection, National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College

Using an animal model that’s relevant to human disease, Fouchier and Kawaoka have shown that relatively few mutations may be required for an influenza virus to evolve into astrain that can pass effectively between individuals and cause serious illness. A key fear has been that this will happen naturally, in avian flu strains that already circulate in the wild.

Although conducted in a specific environment and under controlled conditions, these important findings suggest that similar evolution of naturally-occurring avian flu in the ‘real world’ is biologically plausible and should be taken seriously.

Clearly, this kind of research needs to be conducted using appropriate security and precautions, with consideration of how any published findings could be manipulated by those with malicious intent, or lead to an accidental release of a dangerous pathogen. It is equally important, however, that scientific knowledge is allowed to progress if we are to optimise preparedness for potential outbreaks of avian flu and other pathogens.

Scientists, those who fund scientific research and those tasked with protecting us against biological threats really need to work together on this. We must ensure that a considered approach is taken internationally, balancing any assessment of the potential risks of conducting and publishing this type of research with a genuine need to maintain scientific integrity.

Professor Wendy Barclay, Chair in Influenza Virology, Imperial College

The experiments reported by Fouchier and Kawaoka that describe influenza mutants of the H5N1 bird flu strain that can transmit between mammals have important implications for many researchers, both in academia and in government-funded research institutes and bodies.

These experiments have prompted a welcome discussion about the work that we carry out as researchers, why we do it and how the information should reviewed and shared. It is a very worrying idea that information from this type of work may be restricted to those that ‘qualify’ in some way to be allowed to share it. Who will qualify? How will this be decided? In the end is the likelihood of misuse outweighed by the danger of beginning a Big Brother society?

As has been quoted several times in the press already, the exact mutations that made this transformation possible were not particularly novel or unexpected so anyone with a reasonable knowledge of influenza virology could probably guess at them if they so wished. However the technical details of the experiments are important to share with other experts in the field so that the robustness of the findings and implications of the data can be truly assessed, and so that this new information can be used to move the state of the art forwards.

I am not convinced that withholding scientific know-how will prevent the highly unlikely scenario of misuse of information, but I am worried that it may stunt our progress towards the improved control of this infectious disease.

Dr Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief, Nature

Nature is considering one of the two papers mentioned by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) and we are in active consultation with them.

The research identifies molecular features which may contribute to allowing the H5N1 virus to be more transmissible in humans. We have noted the unprecedented NSABB recommendations that would restrict public access to data and methods and recognise the motivation behind them. It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers. We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled.

Comments welcome below.

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