Should the new flu stay secret? Or does secrecy kill?

By Carl Zimmer | December 20, 2011 12:50 pm

Recently I blogged about a new strain of potentially dangerous flu that evolved during experiments in the Netherlands and Wisconsin. There I tried to counter the misconception that scientists had intentionally concocted this particular strain. Because these new flus actually evolved pretty quickly in laboratories, we now know we should take seriously the possibility that this transformation may happen in the outside world someday.

But there’s a second issue at play with this new virus: should the world get to see its genome?

As Martin Enserink reported last month, both teams of scientists have submitted their papers for publication. Normally, such a paper might include the entire genome of the new viruses. This was a touchy subject, so the papers went under review by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB).

Today, the editors at Science passed on the NSABB’s reccommendations. I’ll quote them here in full:

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) made the following
recommendations regarding the publication of two manuscripts on highly pathogenic avian
influenza A/H5N1:

1. Neither manuscript should be published with complete data and experimental details.

2. Conclusions of the manuscripts be published but without experimental details and
mutation data that would enable replication of the experiments.

a) Text should be added describing: 1) the goals of the research, 2) the potential
benefits to public health (including informing surveillance efforts, pandemic
preparedness activities, and countermeasure development and stockpiling efforts), 3)
the risk assessments performed prior to research initiation, 4) the ongoing biosafety
oversight, containment, and occupational health measures, 5) biosecurity practices
and adherence to select agent regulation, and 6) that addressing biosafety, biosecurity,
and occupational health is part of the responsible conduct of all life sciences research.

b) The NSABB should develop a statement that explains their review process and
rationale for the recommendations. This statement will be provided to the journals to
consider for publication.

c) The USG should encourage the authors to submit a special
communication/commentary letter to the journals regarding the dual use research
issue.

In essence: “Delete the recipe and the mutations.”

The editors at Science released a statement of their own, which I’ll quote in part:

The resulting virus is sensitive to antivirals and to certain vaccine candidates and knowledge about it could well be essential for speeding the development of new treatments to combat this lethal form of influenza. The NSABB has emphasized the need to prevent the details of the research from falling into the wrong hands. 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.

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, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety.

Science supports the 2003 joint Statement on Scientific Publication and Security, published in Science, Nature and PNAS. The statement notes that “open publication brings benefits not only to public health but also to efforts to combat terrorism.” It further emphasizes the need to publish “manuscripts of high quality, in sufficient detail to permit reproducibility,” and it recognizes that there may be occasions when a paper “should be modified, or not be published.”

In essence, “We haven’t decided yet. It would be nice if you let us know how responsible scientists could get hold of the data.”

Vincent Racaniello, a virologist at Columbia University, thinks taking this path is a bad idea. Here’s how he put it to me when I sent him the statements:

It doesn’t make any sense to publish Fouchier’s paper without complete data and experimental details. The point of a science paper is to enable others to duplicate the findings. Are we going to set a new precedent, where security matters override the reason for publication? This is setting a very dangerous precedent for virology and biological sciences in general.

I disagree with the NSABB recommendations, because they have no scientific basis…one cannot conclude that the mutations selected by Fouchier [the head of the Dutch research team] will have effects on transmission of the virus among humans. I understand that if you publish the plans for a nuclear weapon, that may enable a terrorist to make one, but the Foucher finding doesn’t enable anything except more experiments. And that is why the paper should be published – to allow virologists to extend his findings and determine what controls transmission of H5N1 viruses. Often the best experiments are done by scientific unknowns who take an interest in a problem and apply a fresh view. If you restrict dissemination of this information, you are limiting our eventual understanding of the problem.

Update: Looks like Racaniello’s concerns have fallen upon deaf ears. Martin Enserink reports that the virus researchers have decided to redact the contested parts of the papers, which are being considered by Science and Nature.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: A Planet of Viruses, Meta, Top posts

Comments (17)

  1. Michelle

    Perhaps the idea is to keep the “recipe” a secret.

  2. Racaniello hit the nail on the head. Duplication of findings/reproduction of results is critical to science.

    As for fears of recipes, etc., it would seem that mutating viruses isn’t that complex at all, if you have the means of a decent laboratory and some knowledgeable people. So even without this particular piece of research, people could still do those experiments. That these experiments have risks is obvious.

  3. Bob

    If we start censoring scientific effort, it is no longer science, it’s speculation.

    The practice of acting in terms of how we can prevent terrorism constricts us further and further into immobility, a result for which those who would use terror as a weapon — whether they live in caves in Afghanistan, or in offices on Capitol Hill — are hoping. The only way to defeat terrorism is to not be afraid.

    Publish the damned results! Progress should always outweigh politics.

  4. Michelle

    Oh, I was being cynical and also I was wearing my aluminum foil hat. I think all you need for a new flu strain to emerge is a pond used by ducks and pigs, no fancy science, nature does it all. But if the government finds a strain it likes, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wants to keep the recipe to itself.

  5. Trying to hide these data is antithetical to science, completely unnecessary, and so arrogant it borders on insanity. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of people have already seen the manuscript, and most researchers don’t know squat about information security. If any terrorists worthy of the name were actually crazy enough to want this information, I’m quite sure they’d have no trouble getting it.

    But why would they bother? The experiments allegedly show that H5N1 can adapt to ferrets while retaining its virulence. So what? Contrary to the hype Fouchier has been feeding to reporters, the ferret model is actually a pretty poor predictor of human flu virulence. Sadly, there’s no shortage of simpler, cheaper, more reliable ways of perpetrating terror.

  6. floodmouse

    I have mixed feelings on this issue. I have no problem with ADDING data to the publication (like the emphasis on what safety features were used in the experiment – that is good information for everyone to have before anyone tries to replicate it). On the other hand, CENSORING information is not good. Maybe this is a “club” type situation – anyone can drive by the club, but only researchers who are invited can get inside and have access to all the material. I hate to use this analogy, because people are gonna wanna hit me with their mouse, but it’s kind of like the security settings on Facebook. You can let everyone in, block people, and generally decide who gets to play.

    Even if the “recipe” is subtracted from the publication, there is still value to publishing the article. Interested researchers always have the option of contacting the authors and doing some professional networking. I dislike the idea of access being legislated or regulated, but caution might be smart on a voluntary basis. If some person-to-person networking is involved in getting access to the research results, at least there’s more of a handle on who is using the data and why. Some people will get unfairly excluded under this system, and I admit that’s a problem.

  7. And another thing…

    Excluding the the specific point mutations from the study does absolutely nothing to prevent the imagined “bioterrorists” from reproducing this virus. Ferrets are widely available. H5N1 bird flu is widely available (as Chinese poultry farmers have once again been reminded). Just repeat the transmission study, and you should get a transmissible ferret version of H5N1. Of course, that’s just another reminder that we have more to fear from natural virus evolution than from any human-engineered pathogen.

  8. Terry Lantz

    Racaniello says “This is setting a very dangerous precedent for virology and biological sciences in general.” Should millions of deaths occur because such information was carelessly disseminated to individuals and labs that lacked the proper controls for such pathogens the resulting reaction of governments and people would be far more censorious on future scientific exploration. Get a grip on both sides of the argument! We are talking about lives not just ethos.

  9. BRUCE

    Science & I supports the 2003 joint Statement on Scientific Publication and Security, published in Science, Nature and PNAS. The statement notes that “open publication brings benefits not only to public health but also to efforts to combat terrorism.” It further emphasizes the need to publish “manuscripts of high quality, in sufficient detail to permit reproducibility,” and it recognizes that there may be occasions when a paper “should be modified, or not be published.”

  10. I’m not sure the nuclear analogy is a good one.

    The limiting factor in terrorists making nuclear weapons is not an informational one. It is a material one: acquisition of fissile material. If they cannot acquire fissile material, they cannot make a bomb. If they have fissile material, they can make a crude bomb based on public domain information.

    Giving them more information may not help them: the difficulty in implementing, say, advanced nuclear weapons designs, is less a matter of knowing what they are (again, much of that is well known) but in knowing the “art” of actual weapons assembly (crafting high explosive lenses of the right consistency and shape, machining the various radioactive materials into the right shapes, actually putting the pieces together without killing yourself in the process, etc.). Detailed plans for, say, a hydrogen bomb won’t help a terrorist one whit — the actual fabrication and assembly is vastly beyond their capabilities.

    To put it another way: the “secret” of the bomb is generally agreed by most to be more material and tacit (“know-how”) than it is epistemic.

    What’s the situation with the flu data? I’m not sure — it would require considerable expertise, and imagination, to know what’s dangerous and what’s not, and who could abuse it and who couldn’t, now and 30 years down the line, when presumably making custom viruses is going to be a bit easier than it is now. (I say “imagination” because the real security folks have that in scads — their entire mindset is bent on figuring out how someone could cleverly abuse the world.) If the barrier to misusing the flu is epistemic, as opposed to material or tacit, then censorship of some form (or classification of some form) might be prudent. If it is currently epistemic and tacit, but in the long term the tacit barrier will decrease (e.g. the creation of machines that allow easier use/misuse), then again, being conservative about information release might still be warranted. If the barrier is material (which I doubt), then the epistemic concern might be lessened.

    What’s the situation? I don’t know enough about it to say, but if I were trying to make a responsible, rather than ideological, judgment on this, those are the sort of factors I would weigh.

    Frankly, I am less worried about “terrorists” in the “folks in other countries living in caves” sense than I am of the anthrax-letter, “lone wolf” sort of person. Science suggests that only “responsible researchers” should have access to the data. Who are those? Anyone at an American university? Anyone at any university in the world? Anyone with a .edu address? If that’s the security system that’s going to be in place, then don’t bother at all with censorship. Even if it doesn’t leak immediately (in the name of science and all that), it’s essentially free.

    On the other hand, if you start to really talk about how you evaluate “responsible,” now you’re talking about a security clearance system. Which is an entire other kettle of fish, and probably *shouldn’t* be confused with a civilian science issue.

    The tricky problem here is that this is a muddle of civilian and military concerns. It’s bound to be fairly ineffective unless the scientists in question, and those who work in the same field, are all of the same mind about it. (Cf. the self-censorship of fission chain reaction data in the 1930s.)

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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