NSABB and H5N1 redactions: Biosecurity runs up against scientific endeavor

In response to recent actions of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which recommended that two scientific journals withhold crucial details in upcoming reports about experiments with a novel strain of the bird flu virus, H5N1, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) will publish a special series of commentaries by prominent scientists, including the acting chair of the NSABB, weighing in on whether the recommendations were necessary and what role biosecurity considerations should play in the dissemination of research findings. The commentaries will be published in the Society's online, open-access journal, mBio, on January 31. The commentaries are accompanied by an editorial from Editor-in-Chief Arturo Casadevall and ASM Publications Board Chair Thomas Shenk who introduce the problem as the H5N1 manuscript redaction controversy.

The strain of in question has caused hundreds of deaths worldwide, and though it is highly lethal in humans, it apparently lacks the ability to transmit easily from person to person. The current controversy surrounds a report that describes experiments that created a form of the that is transmissible from ferret to ferret, animals used as models of human flu infection.

In the interest of biosecurity, the NSABB recommended that the federal government move to restrict information in the study that would enable a reader to replicate the experiments that enhanced the transmissibility of the virus. The government honored the recommendation and asked the scholarly journals in question, Science and Nature, to redact many of the experimental details, an unprecedented request to which the researchers and journals agreed. This recommendation has generated tremendous controversy among scientists. As noted by Drs. Casadevall and Shenk in their accompanying editorial, the controversy poses a new problem for scientists who are used to resolving disputes with additional laboratory work but are now in a position where they cannot use this method of conflict resolution to settle the matter.

In the first Commentary, Paul Keim, the acting chair of the NSABB and the Chair of the Microbiology Department at Northern Arizona University, lays out his reasons for supporting these recommendations. According to Keim, the fact that it is possible for a highly virulent form of the to acquire the ability to transmit from mammal to mammal is the most important piece of information in the study and should compel policy makers, granting agencies, officials, vaccine and drug developers to move forward with greater urgency in developing flu-fighting infrastructure. The experimental details, on the other hand, would not enhance public health efforts and could actually enable those with ill intent to create a strain of flu that would put lives in danger.

Robert Webster, of St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, asks how science and policy can maintain the sharing of scientific information while minimizing risks to public health. He emphasizes that suppressing scientific knowledge was in the public interest in this instance, but that so-called dual-use research will continue to raise many questions about where to draw the line between freedom of information and public safety. Webster argues there is an urgent need for general guidance in the matter and he proposes creating an international panel to consider approaches to promoting research while maintaining biosecurity.

The final contributor, Vincent Racaniello of Columbia University, argues that NSABB was wrong to recommend suppressing the information in these studies. It is not known whether the ferret adapted virus is lethal or transmissible among humans, Racaniello says, and he points out that adapting viruses to living in lab animals is actually a common strategy for reducing their suitability and virulence to human hosts. He is also concerned about the precedent set by withholding details from a scientific publication. The idea that scientific studies can be published without methods and data will undermine the system of publication, replication and advancement that guides modern scientific endeavor.

The matter of the NSABB and the H5N1 research raises important questions for science and policy, the answers to which principled persons may disagree. The American Society for Microbiology has long contributed to national discussions on health and biosecurity, and it is hoped that the Commentaries appearing in mBio® on January 31 will stimulate a thoughtful and productive dialogue among the various stakeholders.

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