Government Panel Defends Censorship of Bird Flu Virus Research

Deeming research on a man-made strain of H5N1 a potential bioterror threat, a federal advisory group defends its recommendation to keep details of the work secret.

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Computer-generated image of bird flu virus

Members of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) on Tuesday defended its recommendation that details about how scientists made a virulent form of the H5N1 flu virus not be made public.

“Our concern is that publishing these experiments in detail would provide information to some person, organization, or government that would help them to develop similar…A/H5N1 viruses for harmful purposes,” the board members wrote in a statement published in the journals Science and Nature.

Noting that the deliberate release of a transmissible, virulent H5N1 virus would be an “unimaginable catastrophe for which the world is currently inadequately prepared,” the board concluded that publication of the scientists’ methodology in this case would not be responsible.

The work in question was announced in December by researchers at Erasmus University in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin. The scientists had created a strain of H5N1 influenza that was found to spread easily among ferrets — an indication that it would behave the same way in humans. Although naturally circulating H5N1 is deadly when it infects humans, with a mortality rate of nearly 60%, it does not spread readily from person to person.

As the scientists prepared to publish their findings in Science and Nature, the NSABB took the unprecedented step of contacting the journals’ editors and asking them to consider withholding the full details of the experiments, citing concerns about the potential bioterror implications of the work. The editors agreed, but the decision caused an uproar in the scientific community and beyond.

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Some observers were concerned about the precedent that such censorship would set — scientists pride themselves on their free and unhindered ability to publish the methodology of their research, without political or social or cultural pressures, which allows other scientists to replicate their work.

Others raised the concern of so-called dual-purpose research — such as studies on pandemic flu viruses — that has both good and bad purposes. This research has the potential to improve and protect human health, but also to harm if used improperly.

The board’s 22 members — experts in infectious disease, epidemiology, immunology and biosecurity — weighed the pros and cons of publishing the new findings on H5N1:

[W]e acknowledge that there are clear benefits to be realized for the public good in alerting humanity of this potential threat and in pursuing those aspects of this work that will allow greater preparedness and the potential development of novel strategies leading to future disease control.

On the other hand:

[T]hese scientific results also represent a grave concern for global biosecurity, biosafety and public health. Could this knowledge, in the hands of malevolent individuals, organizations or governments, allow construction of a genetically altered influenza virus capable of causing a pandemic with mortality exceeding that of the ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic of 1918?

On balance, the NSABB concluded, “We found the potential risk of public harm to be of unusually high magnitude” in the case of man-made H5N1. “[W]e therefore recommended that the work not be fully communicated in an open forum. The NSABB was unanimous that communication of the results in the two manuscripts it reviewed should be greatly limited in terms of the experimental details and results.”

What does “greatly limited” mean? The results will be published, but the methods and details of the specific techniques scientists used to generate their H5N1 strain, will not be.

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For now, the two research groups have agreed to a moratorium on work on the potentially dangerous H5N1 strain, until scientific, political and ethics leaders can discuss the best way to proceed with such doubled-edged experiments.

Will that keep us safe? If the scientists in the Netherlands and the U.S. were able to manipulate H5N1 into becoming more transmissible, it’s likely that, with or without publication of their methods, others will soon follow — including those who may not have the good of the public’s health in mind.

Keeping essential parts of scientific experiments under wraps becomes a finger in the dike: the flow of information may be temporarily under control, but eventually, the pressure of pent-up knowledge will ultimately burst into the public arena. Holding back research on the new H5N1 may also hamper other researchers’ well-intentioned efforts to better understand the virus to prevent pandemics.

If scientists are prevented from sharing information freely — and unable to collaborate or collate their knowledge about a pathogen as devious as influenza — everyone suffers. It’s a compromise, and as such, may satisfy no one and leave everyone feeling uneasy.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.