Scientists Asked Not to Publish H5N1 Flu Research Details

Troy Brown

December 22, 2011

December 22, 2011 — Citing terrorism concerns, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has asked Science and Nature to publish only limited information about the methodology and findings of new research regarding transmission of the H5N1 influenza virus.

Science is giving serious consideration to the request, said the journal's Editor-in Chief Bruce Alberts, MD, in a written statement published online December 20. The NSABB is a federal advisory committee charged with monitoring dual-use research of concern. It is overseen by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and was formed in response to concerns about anthrax research after the US terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Ron Fouchier, MD, from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and colleagues created mutations in the H5N1 influenza virus that enabled it to be easily transmitted between ferrets, which are a reliable model for the human response to the virus. Their research demonstrates that the virus is capable of mutating into a form that will spread easily in humans while remaining lethal. Scientists hope to use this research to prevent future outbreaks by monitoring mutations in the virus and by developing vaccines and treatments early.

Another study scheduled to be published in Nature prompted the same request from the NSABB. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, MD, from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Tokyo, Japan, and colleagues conducted research on the H5N1 virus that had comparable results. Both studies were funded by the NIH.

The researchers on both teams have agreed to the NSABB's request, but they disagree with the advisory board's decision, according to an article published December 20 in the New York Times.

The NSABB is concerned that terrorists could use the teams' research to develop biological weapons and is asking the researchers to redact specifics about how they created the mutations, as well as other findings that could be used for this purpose.

The controversy illustrates the tug-of-war between the public's right to information about important research and the need to prevent that information from being used to cause harm. A 2003 Statement on Scientific Publication and Security, published jointly in Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explains, "We recognize that the prospect of bioterrorism has raised legitimate concerns about the potential abuse of published information, but also recognize that research in the very same fields will be critical to society in meeting the challenges of defense."

"We strongly support the work of the NSABB and the importance of its mission for advancing science to serve society," writes Dr. Alberts in the Science statement. "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."

The H5N1 influenza virus probably has a low likelihood of being used for bioterrorism, said William Schaffner, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, Tennessee, in a telephone interview with Medscape Medical News.

"If you engineered a pandemic strain of influenza and released it on your target population, you then couldn't control it. Influenza spreads like wildfire, and in very short order, it would affect the bioterrorists also," said Dr. Schaffner. "It's an uncontrollable outbreak of disease, unlike some of the other bioterrorist threat pathogens," he added.

It may already be too late to keep this information under wraps, says Dr. Schaffner. "We already have a growing pyramid of people who know all these data, and that pyramid will continue to grow over time," he said.

Dr. Schaffner explained that although he questions the decision to restrict publication of the research, the decision has been made, and it is now up to researchers to work within the NSABB's guidelines and publish research in a way that satisfies both the science community and the NSABB.

"I would like to see both Science and Nature sponsor a study to see just exactly how well this process works. Perhaps this will require progressive publications and status reports over time," Dr. Schaffner concluded.

Dr. Schaffner reports that he has served as an occasional consultant and advisor for GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, Dynavax Technologies Corporation, Pfizer Inc, Merck & Co Inc, and sanofi-aventis. He has also received honoraria from Pfizer Inc, Merck & Co Inc, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, sanofi-aventis, GlaxoSmithKline, and Dynavax.

Statement by Science Editor‐in‐Chief Dr. Bruce Alberts Regarding Publication of H5N1 Avian Influenza Research. Published online December 20, 2011. Full text

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