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The U.S. Asks Journals Not to Publish Avian Influenza Studies


December 20, 2011
By Helen Branswell The Canadian Press

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December 20, 2011 – The U.S. government is asking scientific journals and two top-flight research teams not to publish details of controversial studies on the bird flu virus, expressing concerns the information could be put to nefarious use.

December 20, 2011 – The U.S.
government is asking scientific journals and two top-flight research
teams not to publish details of controversial studies on the bird flu
virus, expressing concerns the information could be put to nefarious use.

The government asked the journals, Science and Nature, to publish only brief reports of the end result of the work, withholding the methods by which the research teams managed to adapt the dangerous H5N1 virus to become easily transmissible.

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It made the request on the advice of its biosecurity advisers, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. The request is non-binding; the government does not have the power to block the publications.

Dr. Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, said the journal's editors are deliberating what to do. Alberts said Science's response would depend on what steps the U.S. government takes to put in place a promised system to ensure researchers with a legitimate need to see the full studies will be able to do so.

And the lead authors of one of the studies, Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier, indicated he is not willing to wait for months to see that work completed by the U.S. government or the World Health Organization, which may be asked to play a gatekeeper role.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Fouchier said that he and his team feel a moral obligation to share the information they found about how H5N1 could transition to becoming a virus that might be able to spread easily from person to person.

"If the U.S. government or WHO are going to take two months to figure out a strategy to disseminate the results, then we will probably have already disseminated the results to those that need it, especially our very close collaborators, the people who have distributed the (original) virus to us,'' said Fouchier, who is with
Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam. Fouchier's paper is in the hands of Science.

Like Alberts, Nature editor-in-chief Dr. Philip Campbell did not indicate whether the journal would honour the request to withhold the key portions of the paper submitted to it by virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Kawaoka was not immediately available for comment.

"It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers,'' 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.''

The studies are reported to show how the dangerous H5N1 could be adapted to spread easily among people.

In the case of Fouchier's work, a combination of "a handful'' of mutations — all of which have already been seen in H5N1 viruses collected from birds — changed the virus from one that doesn't transmit easily among ferrets to one that did — with deadly effect on the animals.

Ferrets are considered the best animal model for how flu works in humans.

The H5N1 virus currently only infects humans rarely. Since the virus exploded through poultry flocks in Asia in 2003, 573 people have been known to have been infected and 336 of those people have died. That's a fatality rate of 59 per cent.

The studies were submitted by the journals for review to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, an expert group set up in the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks in the U.S. to advise the American government on so-called dual-use research.

The term dual-use refers to genuine scientific research that could be used for nefarious purposes, such as a bioterrorism attack.

After weeks of deliberation, the advisory panel suggested that the scientific journals should be asked to withhold the guts of the trials and share the information only with people who have a genuine need to see the material. It's not currently clear who would make that decision or how distribution of the information would be released.

Biosecurity expert Dr. D.A. Henderson of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said he thought the panel's recommendation was the right approach to take, though he acknowledged it would be tough to keep the information that secure in the era of WikiLeaks.

"I think there's no perfect answer,'' said Henderson, who led the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox.