U.S. Panel Defends Recommendation to Censor Airborne Flu Studies

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Dead ducks are hung at a farm in the outskirts of Phnom Penh December 17, 2008. Cambodia began culling poultry near its capital five days after a young man from the area was confirmed with H5N1 bird flu by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the government. Chor Sokunthea/ Reuters

A potentially deadlier airborne bird flu virus raises bioterror dangers that will be devastating to humans and therefore justifies an unprecedented call to censor the research that produced it, a federal advisory panel said on Tuesday.

The panel said after it conducted an analysis with consideration for both the potential benefits and risks of publication it concluded that the potential danger of public harm to be of “unusually high magnitude,” the panel said in the released statement.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity publicly outlined its position for the first time in the journals Science and Nature, and its censorship decision drew scornful criticism from many in the scientific community who say that withholding information will set hinder the ability for scientists to search for potential treatments and hamper public health efforts.

The NSABB ignited an all-out debate in the scientific and public health communities last year in December when the board asked that the journals Nature and Science to delete certain information from the two studies on new strains of the H5N1 virus that is easily transmissible between ferrets.

Just recently, scientists involved in the airborne-flu studies have voluntarily agreed to a 60-day moratorium on all research related to the new strain of the H5N1 virus to allow governments and health organizations time to debate on how future flu studies should be handled.

An international meeting on the subject is set for mid-February at the World Health Organization in Geneva.

"We are in the midst of a revolutionary period in the life sciences," the NSABB said in a statement released by the journal Science on Tuesday. "However, there is also a growing risk that the same science will be deliberately misused and that the consequences could be catastrophic."

The panel consisted of 22 senior scientists who made media headlines last month by requesting that both the journals in which the flu studies would be published to withhold certain details of the two bird flu transmission studies from publication. 

Although the actual virus is currently not efficiently transmitted among mammals, researchers from the studies created and demonstrated that a new version of the H5N1 extremely contagious among ferrets, the most similar animal models to humans.  

"Our concern is that publishing these experiments in detail would provide information to some person, organization, or government that would help them to develop similar mammal-adapted influenza A/H5N1 viruses for harmful purposes. We believe that as scientists and as members of the general public, we have a primary responsibility "to do no harm" as well as to act prudently and with some humility as we consider the immense power of the life sciences to create microbes with novel and unusually consequential properties," the NSABB  explained in the statement.

The NSABB panel believes that that the “benefits to society are maximized and the risks minimized” if the study is published with just the results without methods or details.

The panel noted fears of the mutant H5N1 virus created by researchers at Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, could accidentally escape the lab or be used as a weapon in bioterrorism. 

Paul Keim, acting chair of the NSABB wrote in mBIO it is reasonable to conclude that the virus pathogen is capable of creating a pandemic “to cause such devastation that it should be prevented at all costs."

Keim said that a direction must be decided as community, and not “relegated to small segments of government, the scientific community, or society”.  He compared the bioterror dangers to the proliferation risks faced by the early atomic scientists.

“Physicists faced a similar situation in the 1940s with nuclear weapons research, and it is inevitable that other scientific disciplines will also do so," Keim wrote.

In a statement, the panel said that the current situation “parallels with the situation in the 1970s and recombinant DNA technologies” in which a landmark meeting was held in in 1975 to identify, evaluate and mitigate the risks posed by recombinant DNA technologies. 

The DNA research community had also voluntarily imposed a temporary moratorium on DNA research until a consensus of guidance of safe and responsible conduct of DNA research was reached. 

American Society for Microbiology also announced that they will publish a “special series of commentaries by prominent scientists, including the acting chair of the NSABB” considering in on whether the recommendations were necessary and the significance of biosecurity considerations in the distribution of research findings, on Tuesday. 

Vincent Racaniello of Columbia University argued that the federal panel was wrong to recommend censoring the information in these studies.  He said that the ferret-adapted virus is not proven to be transmissible among humans, and pointed out that adapting viruses to lab animals is a common strategy for reducing their suitability and virulence to human hosts.

Racaniello is concerned that the recommendations set by the panel to withhold details from a scientific publication will “undermine the system of publication, replication and advancement that guides modern scientific endeavor,” according to an ASM statement released on Tuesday.

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