mBio is publishing a special series of Commentaries this week 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 of upcoming relating to a novel strain of the bird flu virus, H5N1. The Commentaries, written by prominent scientists (including the acting chair of the NSABB), weigh in on whether the recommendations were necessary and what role biosecurity considerations should play in the dissemination of research findings. Read the Commentaries and the accompanying editorial, then come back to the blog and use the "comments" function below to discuss your thoughts with other readers.
The strain of avian flu 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 experiments that created a form of the H5N1 virus 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, and the authors of the studies recently announced they will suspend their work for two months to allow the dust settle.
Here's how the Commentaries shake out:
• In the first Commentary, Paul Keim (acting chair of the NSABB) lays out his reasons for supporting these recommendations. According to Keim, the fact that it is possible for a highly virulent form of the bird flu virus to acquire the ability to transmit from mammal to mammal is the most important piece of information in the study and it should compel policy makers 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, asks how science and policy can maintain the sharing of scientific information while minimizing risks to public health. 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.
The matter of the NSABB and the H5N1 research raises important questions for science and policy, the answers to which principled persons may disagree. What do you think? Did the NSABB make the right call? Did the journals do the responsible thing or bow to pressure?
And what would you do if it were your research?