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Web Date: December 21, 2011

Government Asks Journals To Conceal Bird Flu Study Details

Controversy: NIH Board asks journals to omit key details of contagious flu recipes
Department: Science & Technology | Collection: Homeland Security
News Channels: Biological SCENE
Keywords: influenza, avian flu, pandemic, publishing, peer review
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SECRET SCIENCE
Government officials want to keep the recipe for a contagious version of H5N1 flu under wraps. In colorized TEM image, H5N1 (gold) grows among kidney cells (green). Virus particles are typically 80-120 nm in diameter.
Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith/CDC
Colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (seen in gold) grown in canine kidney cells (seen in green).
 
SECRET SCIENCE
Government officials want to keep the recipe for a contagious version of H5N1 flu under wraps. In colorized TEM image, H5N1 (gold) grows among kidney cells (green). Virus particles are typically 80-120 nm in diameter.
Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith/CDC

Two independent research teams have developed strains of avian influenza so potentially deadly that they’ve prompted an unprecedented response from the U.S. government. A federal advisory board has asked the journals Science and Nature not to publish details of the teams’ controversial research, so as to hide it from would-be bioterrorists.

In the not-yet-published work, scientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Erasmus Medical Center, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, reportedly made mutant versions of the H5N1 avian flu virus that are highly contagious among ferrets, the lab animal most like humans in flu susceptibility. Over half of the people infected with real-world variants of H5N1 have died from it, but those viruses didn’t spread from person to person easily. The new lab-made viruses were created as part of efforts to develop drugs or vaccines to stop pandemics, the researchers say, but if the viruses fell into the wrong hands they could touch off the very pandemics they were created to prevent.

After a lengthy review of both team’s manuscripts, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which is overseen by the National Institutes of Health, asked the journals to redact mutation details that might allow the results to be replicated. The board also requested additions, including explanations of biosecurity practices and the research’s potential benefits to public health.

The Netherlands virologists, led by Ron Fouchier, “have reservations about this recommendation but will observe it,” according to a statement from Erasmus Medical Center. However, at this point secrecy “is almost impossible” because many flu scientists and officials have already seen the details, they add.

Asked whether Wisconsin virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka and coworkers would also redact portions of their work, university spokesperson Terry Devitt said that hasn’t been determined yet. But “the recommendations, which are nonbinding, are being seriously considered” as the team prepares a revised manuscript, Devitt added.

Both Science and Nature have professed their willingness to work with the board, given certain conditions. Science’s response, Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts said in a statement, will be “heavily dependent” on the government putting forth a transparent plan that ensures legitimate scientists can access the censored information. Nature Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell concurred, saying in a statement that access for researchers “is essential for public health.”

Plans for a system permitting such access are in the works, according to a statement from NIH. The statement provides no details, however, about how the system would run and who would be qualified to use it.

Both journals are actively discussing those points with the board. “It is a complicated matter,” says Ginger Pinholster, a spokesperson for Science. “We have been grateful to talk in depth with officials about how the information transfer can be achieved.”

 
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