December 21, 2011

NIH Advisory Committee: Limit Publication of Flu Virus Research

There is an update to an earlier report here regarding the creation of a novel H5N1 influenza virus by Ron Fouchier and colleagues in the Netherlands that may exhibit the properties of human transmissibility and high lethality (i.e., pandemic-grade). Although the native H5N1 virus has a high mortality rate (around 60%), it is not readily contagious, a fact that has limited its potential threat to humans. Now, this new H5N1 virus has been genetically modified in the laboratory so that it is readily infectious in ferrets, a mammalian model of virus infection that can be predictive for human health. Recent reports of the research led to an immediate referral to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, an National Institutes of Health (NIH) advisory committee that reviews dual-use research (scientific work with both salutory and pernicious uses) for publication risk. Now, NSABB has recommended that the virus research be published in a redacted fashion, omitting key details and methodology in order to frustrate rogue attempts to duplicate the virus as a bioterrorist weapon. The leading journals Science (statement here) and Nature have agreed to the recommendations (two different scientific groups are separately publishing the work in these journals). Mechanisms will be established to allow researchers in the field to have access to the full report. This is the first time that the NSABB has issued this recommendation, and the restricted publication has benefits (possible deterrence of those who would produce the virus for destructive purposes) and drawbacks (a precedent that runs against scientific norms of open access and free flow of information). Virologists are divided on the issue: some argue for suppression of critical information on the virus because of the risk of misuse; other virologists assert that publication is not dangerous because the research itself is less troubling than it first appears. My own view is that the reported details of the engineered virus will surface online; however, without confirmation from the original research, it will be hard to verify the accuracy of a stray report. It appears that those scientists who receive official access are likely to observe the publication blackout of the virus details. Either way, this NSABB action and the cooperation by scientists and journals results in a novel and informal prior restraint on scientific publication that particularly encapsulates the post-9/11 concern with dual-use research. In an unrelated but very timely report, efforts to design a universal vaccine against flu viruses (useful against seasonal or pandemic strains) are showing progress.

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