Researchers successfully created a version of the H5N1 virus, typically only virulent in wild waterfowl, which could possibly be transmitted to humans.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) was set up after 9/11 to monitor the scientific community for bioterrorist threats. This is the first time the board has recommended authors not publish parts of an article since its inception in 2004, recommending scientists redact portions of the article which contain the methodology of how to replicate the procedure.
“This is about one of the worst things I can imagine,” said David Relman, Stanford professor of microbiology and member of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), referring to a scenario in which a transmissible form of H5N1 avian flu might find its way into the public sphere, a possibility that recently came closer to reality due to controversial research by University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists and, independently, Dutch scientists.
“The reality is that if it escaped, and behaved as we think it might, it could cause a global pandemic unlike anything anyone has ever seen,” said Relman, who has been a member of the NSABB since its founding.
The concern of the board is that people who want to inflict harm, or even people who simply want to push the boundaries of biology without taking proper safety measures, could use the research to replicate the transmissible virus and release it into the public.
On the other hand, many critics say that the recommendation approaches academic censorship and limits scientific knowledge. Sara Tobin, a senior research scholar in Stanford’s Program for Genomics, Ethics and Society, is one such critic.
“We all benefit from more understanding of biological processes and how viruses work, and when things aren’t published, there isn’t any way to use the scientific methods to make sure…people can build on that in constructive ways,” Tobin said.
Tobin said the portion of the research which the NSABB recommended to be withheld from publication could help scientists understand how the virus transmission works, and could be, “extremely useful in handling flu epidemics.”
She acknowledges an inherent catch-22 of sorts, however, because the research has not been published, making the benefits and risks are both unclear.
H5N1 is an extremely dangerous virus, much more dangerous than the average flu virus.
“The 1918 flu pandemic had a mortality of 2 percent, and killed tens to hundreds of millions,” said Douglas Owens, director of the Center for Health Policy in the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford. “This virus kills 50 percent [of the time]. It’s 25 times more fatal than the 1918 flu.”
Relman echoed these comments, saying, “[H5N1] is a particularly lethal disease. There aren’t very many infectious agents in the world that have higher fatality rates than this virus does.”
Because of H5N1’s dangerous capabilities, preventing people from inflicting harm by using the virus is a major concern.
“Bioterrorism now is a very important national security threat, so you have to think about this dual-use biology quite differently,” Owens said. He said he agrees with the NSABB’s actions, and that in cases like the H5N1 case, scientists should act prudently.
The research used ferrets as a surrogate for transmitting the disease. Some say that because of this disparity, there is not sufficient ground to withhold publication of the methodology of the study, as it is not certain that the virus will act in humans as it does with ferrets. But as Relman warns, “You wouldn’t want to take your chances that it’s wrong.”
The actions of the NSABB have also raised concern that there is no proper mechanism for the scientific community and the public to evaluate biosecurity threats before they become published. Relman stated that the NSABB has recommended to the United States government the formation of local committees to help scientists as they formulate research proposals to determine the possible danger of certain experiments.
“We need to find a really sound system for dealing with all these kinds of cases, and putting it in place soon, because we can’t have these one-time solutions,” Relman said.
“There is a lot of work that goes on now in biology that could be used for great good or that people with ill intentions could use to do harm,” Owens said. “This is an issue that will have to be considered as people move forward.”
As of now, the government has not reformed or changed the system. Tobin said she envisions a conference in which scientists, the public and the press can come together to discuss the various merits and risks of publication.
“I think that a community is probably going to be more productive than this small group making the recommendation,” Tobin said.
According to Relman, the NSABB is moving toward voting in favor of recommending a voluntary moratorium on publication of the latest controversial research to allow for a “global discussion.”