NSABB and H5N1 redactions: Biosecurity runs up against scientific endeavor

January 31, 2012, American Society for Microbiology

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.

Explore further: Newly engineered highly transmissible H5N1 strain ignites controversy

Related Stories

Newly engineered highly transmissible H5N1 strain ignites controversy

January 26, 2012
Scientists have engineered a new strain of H5N1 (commonly known as bird flu) to be readily transmitted between humans. Two perspectives being published early online in Annals of Internal Medicine, the flagship journal of ...

Fear gone viral

January 20, 2012
If you were paying attention to the flap over two recent flu experiments involving ferrets, you may have come away with the impression that scientists all but waved a red flag in front of terrorists and said, "Here's a perfect ...

Avian flu breakthrough raises question of potential risk

December 19, 2011
A University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist who is an expert on the avian flu virus is under federal scrutiny because of concerns his new research may fall into the wrong hands.

Recommended for you

Best of Last Year—The top Medical Xpress articles of 2017

December 20, 2017
It was a good year for medical research as a team at the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, found that dancing can reverse the signs of aging in the brain. Any exercise helps, the team found, but dancing ...

Pickled in 'cognac', Chopin's heart gives up its secrets

November 26, 2017
The heart of Frederic Chopin, among the world's most cherished musical virtuosos, may finally have given up the cause of his untimely death.

Sugar industry withheld evidence of sucrose's health effects nearly 50 years ago

November 21, 2017
A U.S. sugar industry trade group appears to have pulled the plug on a study that was producing animal evidence linking sucrose to disease nearly 50 years ago, researchers argue in a paper publishing on November 21 in the ...

Female researchers pay more attention to sex and gender in medicine

November 7, 2017
When women participate in a medical research paper, that research is more likely to take into account the differences between the way men and women react to diseases and treatments, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.

Drug therapy from lethal bacteria could reduce kidney transplant rejection

August 3, 2017
An experimental treatment derived from a potentially deadly microorganism may provide lifesaving help for kidney transplant patients, according to an international study led by investigators at Cedars-Sinai.

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017
People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.