Experiments that led to the creation of a highly transmittable form of a virus that leads to bird flu has one government advisory board seeking to limit the published information about it.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) requested two journals, Science and Nature, to keep certain details out of those reports that would led to replication of the experiment.
The experiments, conducted in the United States and the Netherlands, had scientists created a version of H5N1, the virus that causes bird flu, that was highly transmittable on ferrets, which are considered by scientists to be a good animal model for what could occur to humans.
The issue is considered significant for scientists at K-State, and not only because some of their ongoing research could be affected. The National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF) now under construction on the campus will focus on researching threats to the nation’s food supply, in the process carrying out that would be especially sensitive if it fell into the wrong hands.
Jerry Jaax, KSU associate vice-president for research compliance, said potential removal of certain details will be an issue even if it’s not connected to NBAF-like facilities. “The technology to do this type of work is getting easier all the time,” he said. “It’s a dilemma, let’s put it that way.”
David Franz, K-State adjunct faculty in diagnostic medicine pathobiology, is a member of the NSABB, which was created in 2005 to provide guidance regarding biosecurity oversight.
The group was created after a 2003 report, which addressed biotechnology research in the age of terrorism.
Franz said the goal is to look at both the good and the potential abuse of science.
“My default position on all of this is we should give legitimate scientists and life science researchers in general as much information as we can because that will let them develop countermeasures whether it’s a terrorist event or a nature event,” he said.
Franz said the issue is different from other publication requirements because it deals with a highly lethal virus that would potentially be highly transmittable among humans. “There aren’t that many highly transmissible human viruses that are also highly virulent,” he said.
More than half of the 600 people who have caught the virus died since its first detection in 1997. “We have to look carefully at how we disseminate that information,” Franz said. He noted there’s no proof the experiment’s findings mean that it could transfer easily among humans.
Jaax said he doesn’t have an opinion on how it should play out, but there are arguments for both sides.
He said scientists need the full details of any experiment for replication.
“That’s one of the key tenants of science,” he said. “You have to replicate results. You have to prove the data is accurate enough to reproduce.”
Jaax said he also knows that it’s important to keep certain information out of the hands of potentially harmful individuals.
“There’s no real right or wrong answer here,” he said. “There are smart people on both sides of the issue here.”
Juergen Richt, Regents Distinguished Professor at K-State’s veterinary medicine college, and the two lead researchers of the experiments, Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, are members of the Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveilance.
Richt said the researchers did good work and the findings need to be publicized to start the process of developing treatments. “If you don’t publish, governments won’t think about whether our antivirals are good enough,” he said.
However, Richt thinks the removal of certain details will ultimately protect the world from the danger of information falling into the wrong hands. “Some have the ability to make the H5N1 virus from non-transmittable to transmittable within months,” he said.
Richt said issuing the full details to scientists after applications would weed out untrustworthy people he called “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Franz said he isn’t sure what parameters would be in place to give out the full details. “I don’t know whether the legitimate scientists will contact the journal or whom would be in place for the information,” he said.
Franz said the pool of legitimate scientists would start with the government and academic scientists worldwide who have published studies about influenza.
“It’s my sense that the U.S. government will not limit it to the U.S.,” he said. “It’s important we all work together.”
Richt acknowledged that a criticism of this approach could be that only a privileged few have access to the information.
“Science can be abused,” he said in defense of limited access. “That’s why we have all these committees and bell and whistles in place.”
Richt has experience in dealing with the NASBB concerning potentially limiting the information from an experiment.
The NASBB considered a recommendation of not publishing the findings of experiments he helped conduct that involved replication of the 1918 “Spanish” flu, before ultimately allowing it.
“The difference is the panel believed even if someone can recreate the 1918 virus, it wouldn’t have the same effect because humans have immunities to it,” Richt said.