My colleague Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer, wrote a riveting article last week for Foreign Policy on how scientists have created a variant of the bird flu virus that is highly communicable and lethal among mammals. Yesterday, for the first time ever, a U.S. government advisory board asked scientific journals not to publish certain details about how the new virus was created. I asked Laurie to explain what all this means. Here is what she had to say:
Today, December 20, 2011, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) released its decision regarding publication of two scientific papers claiming to have made a “super-flu” variant of the H5N1 avian virus. Two research teams, from the Netherlands and Wisconsin, separately claimed in September to have man-made genetic variants of the widely circulating H5N1 virus, rendering the flu not only transmissible man-to-man, but also more than 50 percent lethal.
As I described last week, the research sparked a range of fears, including concern that what amounts to the most dangerous human pathogen ever known to have existed could escape its laboratory confines, with disastrous repercussions; that publication of the “how-to” aspects of the experiments could constitute handing a catastrophe cookbook to terrorists or malevolent individuals; and that recent proliferation in high security biology labs worldwide has increased the risk of both lab accidents and untraceable bioterrorism research.
The NSABB faced three basic options regarding publication of papers by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University in Rotterdam and Yoshi Kawaoke of the University of Wisconsin in Madison:
1) Advise all credible scientific publications to decline release of the papers, essentially censoring the work;
2) Allow full and free publication of both papers;
3) Advise publication, but with key passages related to how the feats were performed, deleted.
The NSABB essentially opted for number three, suggesting to Science, Nature, and other major journals that they agree to publish the two studies, but omit some of the materials and methods sections, allowing scientists to know what was done, but not how:
Due to the importance of the findings to the public health and research communities, the NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm. The NSABB also recommended that language be added to the manuscripts to explain better the goals and potential public health benefits of the research, and to detail the extensive safety and security measures taken to protect laboratory workers and the public.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a statement today, responding to the NSABB (which technically is an advisory board to the HHS):
The NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.
The NSABB also recommended that language be added to the manuscripts to explain better the goals and potential public health benefits of the research, and to detail the extensive safety and security measures taken to protect laboratory workers and the public.
HHS agreed with this assessment and provided these non-binding recommendations to the authors and journal editors.
One of the journals likely to publish the research is Science magazine. Science Editor-in-Chief Dr. Bruce Alberts issued a statement today:
Science editors will be evaluating how best to proceed. Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety.
The British journal Nature is also likely to publish one or both papers, and today its Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell said:
We have noted the unprecedented NSABB recommendations that would restrict public access to data and methods and recognize the motivation behind them. It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers. We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled.
Where does this leave us? The papers will be published, and smart scientists working in virology or allied professions will read between the lines, reckoning exactly how the super-flus were created. The University of Wisconsin released a statement this week insisting that Kawaoke has not made a “super-flu” and welcoming the opportunity to clear the air on his research. Rotterdam’s Fouchier, however, has made a form of bird flu that is readily transmitted airborne between mammals (presumably including humans) with a lethality of about 60 percent: the work will be eagerly digested by scientists all over the world.
The NSABB decision will satisfy almost nobody. Advocates for scientific openness will bristle at any censorship, whether it involve a few sentences or an entire article. Conversely, those that fear bioterrorist use of such information will scoff at the notion that deleting a few paragraphs of methodology will in any way deter dedicated miscreants.
In the end the most important, and alarming aspect of this tale is that human beings were able to turn a fairly harmless (to mammals) virus into possibly the worst microbe to have ever co-existed with our species, and did so inside academic facilities. There was considerable debate inside the NSABB regarding whether it should recommend that all future work on the virus be conducted exclusively inside BioSafety-Level 4 (BSL-4) labs, the highest security facilities – significantly more stringent environs than those in which Fouchier and Kawaoke’s teams toil. It seems the Board punted, avoiding the question.
It is now up to federal authorities in the U.S., Netherlands, and elsewhere to decide whether to sequester the deadly microbes, and experiments conducted on them, inside BSL-4 confines.