The US government has asked the scientific journals Nature and Science to censor data on a lab-made version of bird flu that could spread more easily to humans, fearing it could be used as a potential weapon.
The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the two journals to publish redacted versions of studies by two research groups that created forms of the H5N1 avian flu that could easily jump between ferrets — typically considered a sign the virus could spread quickly among humans.
The journals are objecting to the request, saying it would restrict access to information that might advance the cause of public health.
The request was a first for the expert panel, formed after a series of anthrax attacks on US targets in 2001. It advises the department of health and human services and other federal agencies about “dual use” research that could serve public health but also be a potential bioterror threat.
“NSABB has never before recommended to restrict communications on research that NSABB has reviewed that has potential dual use implications,” Dr Amy Patterson, director of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Biotechnology Activities, said in an e-mailed statement.
The bird flu virus is extremely deadly in people who are directly exposed to infected birds but so far it has not mutated into a form that can pass easily from person to person.
The National Institutes of Health funded the two research labs’ work to see how the virus could become more transmissible in humans with the aim of getting early insight to contain threats to public health.
The NSABB wants to keep this information from falling into the wrong hands.
The articles involved work done by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist, and Dr Ron Fouchier and colleagues from the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam.
The National Institutes of Health said the health department agreed with the panel’s assessment and gave the journals non-binding recommendations to withhold key elements of the studies.
But the NIH said the government is working out a system to allow secure access to the information to those with a legitimate need to see it.
“It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers,” the editor in chief of Nature, Dr Philip Campbell, said in a statement.
“We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled.”
Dr Bruce Alberts, editor in chief of Science, said the advisory board asked the journal to delete details on the scientific methods and specific mutations of the virus before publishing an article by Fouchier and colleagues.
“The NSABB has emphasised the need to prevent the details of the research from falling into the wrong hands,” Alberts said in a statement.
He said many scientists who study influenza have a need to know the details of the research to protect the public. He said Science was evaluating how best to proceed.
“Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the US government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety,” Alberts said.
Other researchers voiced concern over government censorship of science.
“It is a very worrying idea that information from this type of work may be restricted to those that ‘qualify’ in some way to be allowed to share it,” Professor Wendy Barclay, chair of influenza virology at Imperial College London, said in an e-mailed statement.
“Who will qualify? How will this be decided? In the end is the likelihood of misuse outweighed by the danger of beginning a Big Brother society?” — Reuters