For the first time, a government advisory board is asking scientific journals not to publish the details of certain biomedical experiments, for fear that the information could be used by terrorists to create deadly viruses and touch off epidemics.
In the experiments, conducted in the US and the Netherlands, scientists created a highly transmissible form of a deadly flu virus that does not normally spread from person to person. It was an ominous step, because easy transmission can lead the virus to spread. The work was done on ferrets, which are considered a good model for predicting what flu viruses will do in people.
The virus, A(H5N1), causes bird flu, which rarely infects people, but has an extraordinarily high death rate when it does. Since the virus was first detected in 1997, about 600 people have contracted it and more than half have died. Nearly all have caught it from birds and most cases have been in Asia. Scientists have watched the virus, worrying that if it developed the ability to spread easily from person to person, it could create one of the deadliest pandemics ever.
A government advisory panel, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, has asked two journals, Science and Nature, to keep certain details out of reports that they intend to publish on the research. The panel said conclusions should be published, but not “experimental details and mutation data that would enable replication of the experiments.”
The panel cannot force the journals to censor their articles, but Science editor Bruce Alberts said the journal was taking the recommendations seriously and would probably withhold some information — but only if the government creates a system to provide the missing information to legitimate scientists worldwide who need it.
The journals, the panel, researchers and government officials have been grappling with the findings for several months. The Dutch researchers presented their work at a virology conference in Malta in September.
Scientists and journal editors are generally adamant about protecting the free flow of ideas and information and are ready to fight anything that hints at censorship.
“I wouldn’t call this censorship,” Alberts said. “This is trying to avoid inappropriate censorship. It’s the scientific community trying to step out front and be responsible.”
He said there was legitimate cause for the concern about the researchers’ techniques falling into the wrong hands.
“This finding shows it’s much easier to evolve this virus to an extremely dangerous state where it can be transmitted in aerosols than anybody had recognized,” he said.
Transmission by aerosols means the virus can be spread through the air via coughing or sneezing.
Ever since the tightening of security after the terrorist attacks in the US on Sept. 11, 2001, scientists have worried that a scientific development would pit the need for safety against the need to share information. Now, it seems, that day has come.
“It’s a precedent-setting moment and we need to be careful about the precedent we set,” Alberts said.
Both studies of the virus — one at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and the other at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — were paid for by the US’ National Institutes of Health. The idea behind the research was to try to find out what genetic changes might make the virus easier to transmit. That way, scientists would know how to identify changes in the naturally occurring virus that might be warning signals that it was developing pandemic potential. It was also hoped that the research might lead to better treatments.