Bioterrorism concerns over virus research – experts respond

Scientists seeking to publish highly controversial studies on the avian influenza virus H5N1 have agreed to remove key details from manuscripts describing their work following requests from the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSSAB).

This effective censorship of scientific research – including potential to create airborne contagions – has sparked debate over the balance between freedom of information and public safety.

Two groups of virologists are planning to publish their research in the leading scientific journals Science and Nature.

Their research identifies mutations in avian influenza H5N1 DNA which could make the virus more transmissible and dangerous to humans. The NSSAB expressed concern that such information could be used by terrorists orchestrating a biological attack using the virus.

Both research groups have now reluctantly agreed to redact data from their submitted manuscripts at the request of the NSSAB. Discussions are currently under way to determine how other scientists may gain access to the removed data.

You can read more about the decision on the Science and Nature websites.

Scientists who worked on the mutated virus had previously told Science:

“I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one… I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”

“[The H5N1 mutant strain is] probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make”.

Our colleagues  at the UK Science Media Centre collected the following commentary from virologists and publishers.

Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. To speak to a New Zealand expert, please contact the NZ SMC (04 499 5476; 

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

“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 said:

“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, said:

“I confirm that 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.”

Dr Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief, Science , 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, Science 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. Science editors will be evaluating how best to proceed.

“Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. 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.

“Science supports the 2003 joint Statement on Scientific Publication and Security, published in Science, Nature and PNAS. The statement notes that ‘open publication brings benefits not only to public health but also to efforts to combat terrorism.’ It further emphasizes the need to publish ‘manuscripts of high quality, in sufficient detail to permit reproducibility,” and it recognizes that there may be occasions when a paper “should be modified, or not be published.'”