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Panel explains decision to limit publication of bird flu research

January 31, 2012|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times / for the Booster Shots blog
  • Workers check for the H5N1 virus at a poultry market in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007. A U.S. government advisory board has explained its recommendation to limit publication of some bird flu research.
Workers check for the H5N1 virus at a poultry market in Bali, Indonesia,… (Firdia Lisnawati / Associated…)

Citing safety risks of "unusually high magnitude," a U.S. advisory panel has explained why it recommended limiting publication of two bird flu research papers in late December.

Bird flu, or H5N1, is a virus that thus far has rarely sickened humans -- but has killed more than half of the people it has infected. In an effort to learn if H5N1 had the potential to spread more easily from person-to-person, scientists at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had engineered strains of the virus that were capable of passing between mammals. In at least one case, the highly-transmissible flu remained deadly, killing the ferrets who caught it.

Reasoning that such a flu unleashed into the wild, either accidentally through error or deliberately via "misuse," would prove catastrophic, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board took the unprecedented step of recommending that the scientific journals Science and Nature hold back on crucial details of the two studies. The journals complied, but asked that a system be put in place to make sure that scientists and policymakers with a legitimate reason would be able to look at the research. 

On Jan. 20, researchers announced a 60-day moratorium on further bird flu research to facilitate discussion.

Advisory board members offered more of the rationale behind their controversial recommendation Tuesday, in a statement published by Science and Nature.

The experts on the panel wrote that while the H5N1 situation is unprecedented, scientists have been concerned for years about the potential for deliberate misuse of biological research to cause harm -- especially research into dangerous microbial pathogens like the avian flu.  But, they added, "Until now, these efforts have suffered from a lack of specificity and a paucity of concrete examples.... We are now confronted by a potent, real-world example."

Because H5N1 was able to be transmitted easily between mammals and retained its deadliness, "we could face an epidemic of substantial proportions," they noted.  Before this work, no one was sure if such a highly-transmissible strain could develop.  Now they know it can -- and thus the panel decided that the risks of publishing detailed results outweigh the benefits. 

The goal now will be for scientists, government and others to forge a way forward, the authors wrote. "Now that this information is known, society can take steps globally to prepare for when nature might generate such a virus spontaneously," they said.

"The life sciences have reached a crossroads," they wrote, much like the one physicists faced as they researched nuclear weapons and biologists faced in the 1970s when recombinant DNA technologies came into use.

The policy statement (publicly available online from Science and from Nature) comes at the end of a monthlong procession of commentaries, including from study authors Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka

Explaining why the National Science Advisory Board released its statement now, acting chair Paul S. Keim told Booster Shots via email that the group had originally hoped to publish it at the same time as the redacted H5N1 papers, but that the research papers are "apparently not ready to be published." 

He could not comment on the timing for the international discussion about how to proceed with H5N1 research, but said that he had heard of several meetings being planned. 

Also Tuesday, Nature published a Q & A with Keim.

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