Two teams of researchers who have engineered deadly and pathogenic flu viruses have reluctantly agreed to withhold vital details of their work for national-security reasons – the first time any scientific team has been asked to do so.
The experts, who are among the top flu researchers in the world, agreed to publish the results of their controversial experiments but not the details of what they did. Albert Osterhaus of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands wrote one study to be published in the journal Science; Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin conducted the other, to be published in the rival journal Nature.
"This is unprecedented," Osterhaus told Science.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity said on Tuesday it had been working with both teams for more than two weeks. The NSABB, an independent expert committee that gives biosecurity advice to the Health and Human Services Department and other federal departments and agencies, was worried that terrorists or militant governments could use the reports as a road map for making a killer virus.
“It’s the first time they have seen results where they determined there should be restrictions,” Dr. Amy Patterson, executive director of the NSABB, told National Journal.
“Everyone, the journals and the authors, have been very cooperative. I think everyone involved wants to do the right thing here,” added Patterson, a physician and researcher who directs the office of science policy at the National Institutes of Health.
The voluntary decision by both labs to edit the reports benefits the Obama administration, which would have been forced to consider intervention had they declined. The administration came under fire earlier this month when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to make morning-after birth control available freely over the counter.
H5N1 bird flu has been circulating on and off since 1998, and it has killed nearly 60 percent of about 570 victims since it reemerged in Asia in 2003. It is a highly deadly version of flu that mostly kills chickens. It rarely infects people, but when it does, little can be done for the victims.
Luckily, the disease doesn’t spread well. But like all versions of the flu virus, it could evolve into a deadlier and more contagious form. Scientists have been working for years to figure out just which mutations would give H5N1 the ability to spread easily from one person to another, while also staying deadly.
Two separate labs have engineered versions that are both infectious and deadly -- and, like all scientists, they want to share their results for discussion and consultations. The findings could be used to help track changes in the virus and to design new drugs and vaccines.
“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 NSABB said in a statement.
“The NSABB has emphasized the need to prevent the details of the research from falling into the wrong hands,” Science Editor-in-Chief Dr. Bruce Alberts said in a statement.
“We strongly support the work of the NSABB and the importance of its mission for advancing science to serve society. At the same time, however, Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers. 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.”
Biosecurity experts have urged the journals to edit the papers and some have questioned the wisdom of the experiments.
"The question is this: Should we purposefully engineer avian-flu strains to become highly transmissible in humans? In our view, no. We believe the benefits of this work do not outweigh the risks," Thomas Inglesby, D.A. Henderson, and Anita Cicero of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center wrote in an editorial on their website.
The work won't be kept totally secret. Patterson said her committee and the researchers hope to come up with a formula for sharing the details of their findings with legitimate flu researchers.