A committee that advises the federal government on biosecurity issues is recommending that the details of two experiments on the H5N1 avian influenza virus -- including research conducted by UW-Madison bird flu expert Yoshihiro Kawaoka -- not be made public due to fears that terrorists could use the information to create a bioweapon.
On Tuesday, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) -- an independent committee that advises the Department of Health and Human Services and other federal departments and agencies on matters of biosecurity -- announced that "while the public health benefits of such research can be important, certain information obtained through such studies has the potential to be misused for harmful purposes."
The Washington Post reports that this "request is a first for the NSABB, which was created after the anthrax bioterror attacks of 2001 to counsel the government on biological research that has potential to be used for nefarious purposes."
In addition to Kawaoka, virologist Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, has been working on similar bird flu studies. This research indicates the bird flu has more potential than previously thought to be transmitted among mammals.
The NSABB says it's asking the authors of these studies, and the editors of the journals that were considering publishing them, "to make changes in the manuscripts. Due to the importance of the findings to the public health and research communities, the NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm."
The National Institutes of Health funded the work as part of its efforts aimed at "pandemic preparedness." The federal government remains concerned about the threat of influenza and is interested in learning how to better detect outbreaks and learn more about how the bird flu might be able to mutate and cause a pandemic. The NSABB adds in its news release that "research on factors that can affect the transmissibility of the H5N1 virus is critically important to international efforts to prepare and prevent threats to public health."
But as the Washington Post points out, the NSABB's recommendation "puts the federal government in a distinctly controversial and embarrassing position. It calls for a limit on the free exchange of information -- something viewed as anathema by many scientists. It also suggests there was not sufficient forethought about what might happen if the government-funded experiments actually worked."
UW-Madison issued a news release following the NSABB's decision stating it will respect the advisory board's recommendations while also working to make the research available to the scientific community. "The research conducted here and elsewhere is critical to understanding the basic workings of an important pathogen," reads the UW-Madison statement. "While recognizing the potential for misuse of scientific discovery, the research described by UW-Madison researchers is essential for public health, global influenza surveillance activities and the development of vaccines and drugs to counter any potential pandemic."
The NSABB recognizes the value of this research, and writes in its news release that the "U.S. government is working to establish a mechanism to allow secure access to the information to those with a legitimate need in order to achieve important public health goals. The U.S. government is also developing a proposed oversight policy that would augment existing approaches to evaluating research that has the potential to be misused for harmful purposes."
In the past month, Kawaoka and Fouchier came under fire for reportedly creating a genetically modified version of the deadly H5N1 bird flu that can be easily transmitted among ferrets, which closely mimic the human response to flu.
"Locked up in the bowels of the medical faculty building here (Rotterdam, the Netherlands) and accessible to only a handful of scientists lies a man-made flu virus that could change world history if it were ever set free," is the lead to this Science Insider article, which went on to note that the "scientists believe it's likely that the pathogen, if it emerged in nature or were released, would trigger an influenza pandemic, quite possibly with many millions of deaths."
Although many of these reports from late November focus on the work of Fouchier, most also indicate Kawaoka conducted similar work.
Some argued creating such a bird flu strain in and of itself is a "recipe for disaster."
Not all agree.
"It's very important research," National Institutes of Health science policy director Dr. Amy Patterson told the Associated Press. "As this virus evolves in nature, we want to be able to rapidly detect ... mutations that may indicate that the virus is getting closer to a form that could cross species lines more readily."
According to Popular Science, "bird flu has been killing off poultry flocks since the 1990s, but there have been just 570 known cases in humans. And of those, 335 people have died. Virologists have thought avian flu could not adapt to mammals easily because it would require drastic changes to the virus' genetic makeup, which might make it unable to reproduce. But (virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam) says his work proves this is untrue."
Interestingly, the Associated Press is also reporting that an influenza virus similar to one found in wild birds but never before seen in seals has been linked to the recent spate of harbor seal deaths off northern New England.