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Censoring Research Results

Science Policy: Federal advisory board urges heavy redaction of H5N1 avian flu papers

by William G. Schulz
February 6, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 6

Credit: AP
Recent outbreaks of avian flu in Southeast Asia have prompted concerns about potential airborne human-to-human transmission.
Outbreaks of avian flu in Southeast Asia have prompted concern about mutation of the H5N1 virus to more virulent and transmissible forms, in particular airborne human-to-human transmission.
Credit: AP
Recent outbreaks of avian flu in Southeast Asia have prompted concerns about potential airborne human-to-human transmission.

The methods and results should be redacted from two research papers describing controversial experiments on the H5N1 avian flu virus, concludes a federal biosecurity advisory board (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1217994).

To support its conclusion, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) cites the “dual use” nature of the research—meaning that it can be used for good or ill purposes—and the resulting threat to global human health, in the event that more dangerous forms of the virus somehow escape research laboratories or fall into the hands of evildoers.

The two papers describe pathbreaking work on H5N1 by two independent groups, one in Wisconsin and the other in the Netherlands, and they have been accepted for publication in Science and Nature. Both journals, however, agreed to withhold publication because of widespread biosecurity concerns over the experiments to direct mutations of the H5N1 virus. These experiments resulted in airborne transmission between mammals and, in one case, a more virulent strain.

“Our [unanimous] concern is that publishing these experiments in detail would provide information to some person, organization, or government that would help them to develop similar mammal-adapted influenza A/H5N1 viruses for harmful purposes,” NSABB members write in their communiqué.

Science has not decided on a publication plan, but Editor-in-Chief Bruce M. Alberts “has repeatedly said he strongly supports the work of the NSABB,” according to a spokeswoman. Alberts is also “concerned about ensuring that responsible influenza researchers who need the information can get appropriate access to the unredacted papers,” the spokeswoman adds.

The White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and NIH are developing such a data-sharing plan, says NSABB Acting Chair Paul Keim, a microbiology professor at Northern Arizona University. “NSABB is an advisory board, and we only address questions brought to us by the U.S. government,” he explains.

Nature declined to comment to C&EN about its plans to publish the research. Both journals have published extensive commentary on the issue.



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