YORK TIMES, Article, "Seeing Terror Risk, U.S. Asks Journals to
Cut Flu Study Facts" By Denise Grady and William J. Broad. Dec.
the first time ever, a government advisory board is asking scientific
journals not to publish details of certain biomedical experiments, for
fear that the information could be used by terrorists to create deadly
viruses and touch off epidemics.
the experiments, conducted in the United States and the Netherlands,
scientists created a highly transmissible form of a deadly flu virus
that does not normally spread from person to person.
was an ominous step, because easy transmission can lead the virus to
spread all over the world. The work was done in ferrets, which are
considered a good model for predicting what flu viruses will do in
virus, A(H5N1), causes bird flu, which rarely infects people but has
an extraordinarily high death rate when it does. Since the virus was
first detected in 1997, about 600 people have contracted it, and more
than half have died.
all have caught it from birds, and most cases have been in Asia.
have watched the virus, worrying that if it developed the ability to
spread easily from person to person, it could create one of the
deadliest pandemics ever.
government advisory panel, the National Science Advisory Board for
Biosecurity, overseen by the National Institutes of Health, has asked
two journals, Science and Nature, to keep certain details out of
reports that they intend to publish on the research.
panel said conclusions should be published, but not "experimental
details and mutation data that would enable replication of the
panel cannot force the journals to censor their articles, but the
editor of Science, Bruce Alberts, said the journal was taking the
recommendations seriously and would probably withhold some information
- but only if the government creates a system to provide the missing
information to legitimate scientists worldwide who need it.
journals, the panel, researchers and government officials have been
grappling with the findings for several months.
Dutch researchers presented their work at a virology conference in
Malta in September.
and journal editors are generally adamant about protecting the free
flow of ideas and information, and ready to fight anything that hints
Alberts said: "I wouldn't call this censorship. This is trying to
avoid inappropriate censorship. It's the scientific community trying
to step out front and be responsible."
said there was legitimate cause for the concern about the researchers'
techniques falling into the wrong hands.
finding shows it's much easier to evolve this virus to an extremely
dangerous state where it can be transmitted in aerosols than anybody
had recognized," he said.
by aerosols means the virus can be spread through the air via coughing
since the tightening of security after the terrorist attacks on Sept.
11, 2001, scientists have worried that a scientific development would
pit the need for safety against the need to share information.
it seems, that day has come.
A(H5N1) virus largely affects birds and rarely infects people, but it
is highly deadly when it does.
a precedent-setting moment, and we need to be careful about the
precedent we set," Dr. Alberts said.
studies of the virus - one at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam,
in the Netherlands, and the other at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison - were paid for by the National Institutes of
idea behind the research was to try to find out what genetic changes
might make the virus easier to transmit.
way, scientists would know how to identify changes in the naturally
occurring virus that might be warning signals that it was developing
was also hoped that the research might lead to better treatments.
Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases, said the research addressed important public
health questions, but added, "I'm sure there will be some people
who say these experiments never should have been done."
Fauci said staff members at the institutes followed the results of the
research and flagged it as something that the biosecurity panel should
lead researcher at the Erasmus center, Ron Fouchier, did not respond
to requests for an interview. The center issued a statement saying
that researchers there had reservations about the panel's
recommendation, but would observe it.
Wisconsin researcher, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, was out of the country and
"not responding to queries," according to a spokesman for
the school said its researchers would "respect" the panel's
R. Franz, a biologist who formerly headed the Army defensive
biological lab at Fort Detrick, Md., is on the board and said its
decision to intervene, made in the fall, was quite reasonable.
concern is that we don't give amateurs - or terrorists - information
that might let them do something that could really cause a lot a
harm," he said in an interview.
a wake-up call," Dr. Franz added. "We need to make sure that
our best and most responsible scientists have the information they
need to prepare us for whatever we might face."
Patterson, director of the office of biotechnology activities at the
National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md., said the
recommendations were a first.
board in the past has reviewed manuscripts but never before concluded
that communications should be restricted in any way," she said in
a telephone interview. "These two bodies of work stress the
importance of public health preparedness to monitor this virus."
M. Atlas, a microbiologist at the University of Louisville and past
president of the American Society for Microbiology, who has advised
the federal government on issues of germ terrorism, said the hard part
of the recommendations would be creating a way to move forward in the
research with a restricted set of responsible scientists.
said that if researchers had a better understanding of how the virus
works, they could develop better ways to treat and prevent illness.
"That's why the research is done," he said.
government, Dr. Atlas added, "is going to struggle with how to
get the information out to the right people and still have a
barrier" to wide sharing and inadvertently aiding a terrorist.
"That's going to be hard."
that some of the information has already been presented openly at
scientific meetings, and that articles about it have been sent out to
other researchers for review, experts acknowledged that it may not be
possible to keep a lid on the potentially dangerous details.
I think there will be a culture of responsibility here," Dr.
Fauci said. "At least I hope there will."
establishment of the board grew out of widespread fears stemming from
the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the ensuing
strikes with deadly anthrax germs that killed or sickened 22
Bush administration called for wide controls on biological information
that could potentially help terrorists. And the scientific community
firmly resisted, arguing that the best defenses came with the open
flow of information.
2002, Dr. Atlas, then the president-elect of the American Society for
Microbiology, objected publicly to "anything that smacked of
federal board was established in 2004 as a compromise and is strictly
advisory. It has 25 voting members appointed by the secretary of
health and human services, and has 18 ex officio members from other
officials said Tuesday that the board has discussed information
controls on only three or four occasions.
first centered on the genetic sequencing of the H1N1 virus that caused
the 1918 flu pandemic, in which up to 100 million people died, making
it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.
chose to recommend publication without any modifications," Dr.
Franz, the former head of the Army lab, recalled.
more our good scientists know about problems, the better prepared they
are to fix them."
fall, federal officials said, the board wrestled with the content of
H5N1 papers to Science and Nature, and in late November contacted the
journals about its recommendation to restrict information on the
methods that the scientists used to modify the deadly virus.
ability of this virus to cross species lines in this manner has not
previously been appreciated," said Dr. Patterson of the National
Institutes of Health. "Everyone involved in this matter wants to
do the proper thing."
version of this article appears in print on Dec. 21, 2011, Section A,
Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: "Journals Asked
To Cut Details Of Flu Studies.")