March 31, 2012

Federal Panel Now Recommends Publication of Influenza Research

Events have shifted quickly in the aftermath of the disclosure of NIH-funded research that resulted in the production of new possibly pandemic-capable influenza H5N1 viruses in two laboratories, at the University of Wisconsin (Yoshihiro Kawaoka) and in the Netherlands (Ron Fouchier). Because of the possible threat that these viruses could pose, immediate concerns were raised as to whether details of the virus structure and the methods for their construction should be available to the public. As a result, the normal publication process for the papers submitted by the two laboratories was shortcircuited by the December recommendation of a federal advisory committee, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), that the research not be published.  This recommendation has been controversial and to some, alarming. Not all virologists have considered this necessary. For example, this recommendation was not supported recently during the convening of an expert conference by the World Health Organization; the participants recommended publication. Now, in the U.S., the NSABB has reversed course. At last week's meeting of the NSABB, the panel voted  to recommend full publication of the now-revised Kawaoka paper (in Nature), and for publication of selected excerpts version of the Fouchier paper (in Science). This removes the unprecendented scenario where both leading scientific journals halted their normal review and publication process upon the intervention of the NSABB, a committee established following 9/11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks to provide NIH with further expertise regarding the control of potential bioterrorist materials and agents and the facilities where they are handled. To date, this was the first instance where the committee extended its reach to consider if the release of scientific knowledge – in the form of peer-reviewed scientific articles - posed a significant threat.

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