February 1, 2012
NSABB Publishes Statement Regarding Bird Flu Censorship
The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has explained why it believes the research on H5N1 bird flu should be censored.
Two research teams have modified influenza strains to create mutant avian influenza viruses that can be transmitted efficiently between mammals.
NSABB said publishing the research in its entirety could potentially cause significant harm to the public.
The board said its main concern was that publishing the experiments in detail could essentially give someone with ill-intent a how to guide on creating a deadly influenza virus.
It said it does recognize the work holds "clear benefits" in alerting humanity to the potential H5N1 threat, and it could lead to greater preparation and better development of novel strategies for disease control.
However, it said by recommending that the basic results be communicated without methods or details, the benefits to society will be maximized and the risks minimized.
The journal Nature has published a Q&A with the acting chair of the NSABB of why they have recommended redaction for the paper in press at Nature. This is the first the board has produced their comments in a published form.
The researchers on both teams, as well as the journals the studies were published in, have voiced their disagreement on NSABB's decision.
However, the journals have tentatively agreed to publish only the findings, not the details of the methods used by the researchers.
"We do not believe that widespread dissemination of the methodology in this case is a responsible action," the NSABB members argued in a commentary published in the two journals.
Paul Keim, acting chair of NSABB, said that the board is concerned the two laboratories that conducted the studies have created viruses that bypass what have seem to have been natural barriers to its ability to spread easily in mammals.
He said the H5N1 virus has been around since at least 1996 and hasn't yet managed to become transmissible among people, perhaps because of "inherent biological limitations."
Ron Fouchier, who led the Dutch team in the research, said he was disappointed by the published statement made by NSABB.
"I was hoping for an explanation of the risks of communicating the results of our study via normal publication. There is none," he wrote in an email to CTV. "Our information is useless to small bioterrorist groups, and larger organizations and rogue countries can replicate our work without our manuscript."
Last week, the scientists behind the research projects agreed to halt their work for 60 days in order to allow experts to determine whether or not the research could lead to a global pandemic or a possible bioterrorism threat.
"The continuous threat of an influenza pandemic represents one of the biggest challenges in public health,” the authors of the letters wrote. “Recent research breakthroughs identified specific determinants of transmission of H5N1 influenza viruses in ferrets. Responsible research on influenza virus transmission using different animal models is conducted by multiple laboratories in the world using the highest international standards of biosafety and biosecurity practices that effectively prevent the release of transmissible viruses from the laboratory.”
The bird flu has only sickened nearly 600 people over the past decade, but it kills 60 percent of the people it infects.
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