Flu Research Sparks Debate About Bioterrorism and Government Control

by Stephen Spotswood

February 17, 2012

WASHINGTON — In an unprecedented move, a federal panel has asked scientists and science journals to curtail the publication of research into avian flu (H5N1). The request has led to heated discussions among the scientific community and to a temporary moratorium on some avian flu research.

The fear is that, if the full scope of the research were made widely available, it could be used to maliciously create a variant of avian influenza easily transmissible to humans.

Two research groups — one at the University of Wisconsin-Madison led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, PhD, and one at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam led by Ron Fouchier, PhD, whose work was funded by the National institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) — have shown the relative ease by which more dangerous strains of H5N1 can be generated.

Both research groups created strains of the virus that can spread among mammals — ferrets in both cases — through airborne transmission and, according to their research, with relatively few changes to the virus’s structure.

The result is a flu that remains as deadly as the less-transmissible H5N1 but that could spread as quickly as seasonal flu. The benefit of such research includes the creation of surveillance techniques to allow researchers to look for similar changes to H5N1 in the wild, diagnostics to search for the virus and the creation of a vaccine designed for such a virus.

However, the dangerous potential of the research remains.

The research came to the attention of HHS in December, when the articles were under review by scientific journals. Kawaoka’s work was sent to Nature and Fouchier’s was sent to Science. The work also was sent to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an independent panel that advises HHS, for review.

Later that month, NSABB released a statement recommending that the authors of the flu studies voluntarily censor their work in its published form. Specifically, NSABB asked that the manuscripts not include the “methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who could seek to do harm.”

To head off potential public outcry over unsafe scientific research, the panel also recommended that language be added to the manuscripts to explain the goals and potential public-health benefits of the research and to detail the security measure that were taken by both research groups.

Dr. Taronna Maines, a microbiologist in the Influenza Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, conducts an experiment at a Biosafety Level 3-enhanced laboratory on H5N1 avian influenza. Photo courtesy of CDC.
Flu Research Sparks Debate About Bioterrorism and Government Control Cont.

Balancing Scientific Freedom

The controversy is not unexpected. Fouchier announced the contents of his research at a conference on influenza research in Malta in September.

Since then, scientists around the world have been ramping up the debate about how to balance scientific freedom and public safety when it comes to “dual-use research” — research that has the potential to be misused to threaten public health or national security.

A similar discussion arose in 2005 when researchers replicated the flu strain that led to the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, which killed at least 3% of the world’s population. However, that research was eventually published in full.

In this case, some scientists and media opinion pieces are saying the research should never have been attempted in the first place, going so far as to compare such research to the kind attempted by comic book super-villains. Others have swung to the opposite pole, stating that any attempt by the federal government to curtail scientific discourse is a slippery slope that could lead to the stifling of innovation.

Fouchier and Kawaoka, along with the editors of Science and Nature, have tentatively agreed to go along with NSABB’s nonbinding recommendation that they omit key details of their research, with conditions, such as the creation of a method by which scientists can have free and transparent access to the information for research purposes. According to the researchers and the journal’s editors, access to that information could help speed development of new treatments to combat the virus.

“Many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus,” said Science editor-in-chief Bruce Albert in a statement. “Science editors will be evaluating how best to proceed. Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. 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.”

What that transparent system will look like is under discussion.

In the meantime, a group of influenza researchers, including Fouchier and Kawaoka, have written a statement published January 20in Science and Nature declaring a 60-day moratorium on any research into H5N1 that could lead to the virus becoming more transmissible to humans.

According to the scientists, the moratorium is to allow time for the scientific community to have a discussion, among itself and with the public, about the safety and benefits of H5N1 research.  In the statement, the researchers said that they recognize that the scientific community, organizations, and governments need time to discuss the opportunities and challenges stemming from the research, and that they hope to do so in an international forum.

That forum could be hosted by the World Health Organization, although nothing has yet been added to that group’s calendar.

The topic is expected to be discussed at the American Society for Microbiology’s annual Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research meeting in Washinton this month, however. A number of health leaders, including NIAID’s director Anthony Fauci, MD, will likely discuss the NSABB recommendations and how they impact federal policy issues.

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