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Web Date: February 1, 2012

Censoring Research Results

Science Policy: Federal advisory board urges heavy redaction to H5N1 avian flu papers
Department: Government & Policy
Keywords: scientific publishing, ethics, dual use research, biosecurity
Outbreaks of avian flu in Southeast Asia have prompted concern about potential airborne human to human transmission.
Credit: AP
Outbreaks of avian flu in Southeast Asia have prompted concern about mutation of the H5N1 virus to more virulent and transmissible forms, in particular human to human transmission.
Outbreaks of avian flu in Southeast Asia have prompted concern about potential airborne human to human transmission.
Credit: AP

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 case more dangerous forms of the virus somehow escape research laboratories or fall into the hands of evildoers.

The two papers describe path-breaking 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, have agreed to withhold publication because of widespread biosecurity concerns over the experiments to direct mutations of the H5N1 virus that 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 communique.

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 State University. “NSABB is an advisory board, and we only address questions brought to us by the U.S. government,” he explains.

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

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allen d (February 1, 2012 4:13 PM)
We've been down this path before. I doubt that the legal structure exists to quash information deemed too dangerous to disseminate, nor do I think it's a good idea for non-government institutions to make these decisions.

And ultimately, it's futile. Once people know a thing is possible, it's only a matter of time before it can be reconstructed. A short time.
Dan C (February 12, 2012 5:17 PM)
Yes. I think the time factor is the important bit. Choosing to withhold information based on the possibility of coming up with a countering strategy would make sense, though. Trying to keep secrets for any long term has to start at the source of the information: doing the research in secret and keeping even the existence of the research secret, but that hinders some programs from being fruitful.

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