Government Panel Asks Journals To Omit Details of Avian Flu Research
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a government advisory panel overseen by NIH, has taken the unprecedented step of recommending that two scientific journals publish only general conclusions from two studies on H5N1, or avian flu, out of concern that the information could be used for nefarious purposes, the New York Times reports (Grady/Broad, New York Times, 12/20).
Based on the panel's recommendation, HHS officials on Tuesday said they asked the study authors, as well as the editors of the journals Science and Nature, to omit "details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm" (Brown, Washington Post, 12/20).
About 600 people have contracted avian flu since 1997, when it was first detected, and about half died. While the virus rarely infects humans, it is extremely deadly when it does. According to the Times, scientists have been concerned about a deadly pandemic if the virus evolves to easily pass from human to human.
About the Studies
NIH funded both studies, which were conducted at the Erasmus Medical Center and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and involved a lab-created version of avian flu that is highly transmissible. The information was intended to help scientists identify changes in the virus that could be warning signs that it was "developing pandemic potential," according to the Times.
The two teams of researchers studied the re-engineered avian flu in ferrets, which mimic how humans respond to influenza (New York Times, 12/20). Both teams found that the strain could evolve naturally to become more easily transmissible "and more easily than previously thought," according to Ron Fouchier, who led the team of Erasmus researchers (Smith, MedPage Today, 12/20).
Board Members, Journal Editors Respond
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity members were unanimous in their recommendation that the journals hold back detailed information on the virus. The board -- established after the 2001 anthrax attacks -- has 23 voting members who are academic scientists and public health officials, as well as 18 nonvoting, government officials.
"Censorship is considered the ultimate sin of original research," Michael Osterholm, board member and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said. "However, we also have an imperative to keep certain research out of the hands of individuals who could use it for nefarious purposes," he added (Washington Post, 12/20).
Editors of both journals said they are working with the board but "chafed at the notion of scientific censorship," according to Reuters (Steenhuysen, Reuters, 12/20).
Phillip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, said, "It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers," adding that the journal is discussing how "appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled" (AP/Sacramento Bee, 12/20).
Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, said the journal is taking the recommendations seriously and probably will comply as long as the government creates a system to allow legitimate researchers to obtain the data. "It's a precedent-setting moment, and we need to be careful about the precedent we set," he said. Alberts added, "I wouldn't call this censorship. This is trying to avoid inappropriate censorship. It's the scientific community trying to step out front and be responsible" (New York Times, 12/20).
Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH, said the government is working on a system to facilitate access to sensitive research data (AP/Sacramento Bee, 12/20).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.