For the first time ever, a government advisory board, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), overseen by the National Institutes of Health, has urged two major scientific journals, Science and Nature, to withhold from publishing certain reports.
These reports include findings from a joint research effort between scientists in the US and the Netherlands about a highly transmissible form of the bird flu, A(H5N1). The scientists’ findings show that certain genetic mutations cause the virus to become spreadable by aerosols (by coughing or sneezing). The research was done using ferrets, which are used to model how the virus might behave with humans. The concern is that the research methods of the experiments could fall into the wrong hands.
“My concern is that we don’t give amateurs — or terrorists — information that might let them do something that could really cause a lot a harm,” said David R. Franz, a biologist and former head of the Army defensive biological lab at Fort Detrick, Md. who is on the advisory board.
The NSABB suggested that the research could be shared with a limited pool within the scientific community, primarily those that could use the information to help treat and prevent the spread of the virus. However, one of the project’s head researchers, Ron A. M. Fouchier, argues that while this would be ideal, in theory there is no way to limit the spread of information, “We would be perfectly happy if this could be executed, but we have some doubts … As soon as you share information with more than 10 people, the information will be on the street. And so we have serious doubts whether this advice can be followed, strictly speaking.” Much of the results have already been presented at scientific meetings, and manuscripts sent out for review.
The NSABB was established in 2004 by the Bush administration, largely in response to the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed or sickened 22 people. The board can only give recommendations, albeit fairly stern and weighty recommendations, it cannot formally act to stop the researchers or journals from publishing.
Currently, the decision to censor is divided between the public health community and the security experts. “The only people who want to hold back are the biosecurity experts. They show zero tolerance to risk. The public health specialists do not have this zero tolerance. I have not spoken to a single public health specialist who was against publication.”
In my opinion, there are two reasons why the research on A(H5N1) should be published and made public:
First, once the findings are made available to anyone, even a small group of scientific specialists directly concerned with the results of this study, it will be hard to control the spread of information and in all likelihood, the results will become easily findable anyways. Additionally, “labeling” something as secret only increases interest in it. Those who do wish to abuse the information would more aggressively pursue it and those who could use the information might not have access to it.
Also, the principal researchers of this study, although they acknowledge the dangerousness of their findings, do not consider publication to be an extreme or unnecessary addtional threat to people’s safety. “… in our opinion, nature is the biggest bioterrorist. There are many pathogens in nature that you could get your hands on very easily, and if you released those in the human population, we would be in trouble… You could not do this work in your garage if you are a terrorist organization. But what you can do is get viruses out of the wild and grow them in your garage. There are terrorist opportunities that are much, much easier than to genetically modify H5N1 bird flu virus that are probably much more effective.” The A(H5N1) virus is a current concern to global health, and restricting the health researchers’ access to this information would do more harm to those who could help.
Do you think the NSABB’s recommendation to withhold publication is justified? Could this set a precedent for future censorship of scientific papers?