The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a government advisory panel overseen by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has asked two peer-reviewed, well-respected scientific journals, Science and Nature, to keep certain research details out of papers that are to be published. The panel said conclusions should be published, but not “experimental details and mutation data that would enable replication of the experiments,” amid security concerns that a hazardous strain might be intentionally or accidentally released into the world if directions for making it were generally known. The panel was created after after the anthrax bioterrorism attacks of 2001.
This marks the first time that a government advisory board is asking scientific journals not to publish details of certain biomedical experiments, for fear that the information could be used by terrorists to create deadly viruses and start epidemics. What caused the panel to recommend that journals undertake self-censorship?
In the experiments, conducted in the United States and the Netherlands, and paid for by the NIH as part of a larger portfolio of research dealing with pandemic preparedness, scientists created a highly transmissible form of A(H5N1), a deadly bird flu virus that does not normally spread from person to person. The death rate is high, however, for infected individuals. The danger of easy transmission is that the virus can spread all over the world, especially with the rapid modes of transportation available today. The work was done in ferrets, which are considered a good model for what flu viruses will do in people.
The recommendation from the board puts the federal government in a difficult situation. Calls for a limit on the free exchange of information is viewed disapprovingly by most scientists. Beyond the reluctance of limiting the free flow of scientific knowledge, the panel’s recommendation also suggests there was not sufficient forethought from the government about what might happen if the experiments actually worked.
The panel cannot force the journals to censor their articles, but the editor of Science noted that the journal was taking the recommendations seriously and would withhold some information if the government could create a system to provide the missing information to legitimate scientists worldwide who needed it for research. The journal’s request is rational, because a better understanding of how the virus works could mean development of treatments or preventative measures. The specter that individuals could attempt to acquire a natural deadly pathogen and “home brew” it based on the published data will have to be addressed thoroughly.