A two-day Royal Society meeting held this week in London — which examined “whether scientific journals should occasionally publish censored versions of papers because the full ones might prove useful to terrorists” — “brought scientists no closer to resolving the question of whether there are any kinds of experiments whose results should be kept from the public,” the Washington Post reports. “The audience of about 200 scientists and ethicists considered numerous questions,” the newspaper writes, noting, “There was general agreement that some experiments are off limits, such as attempting to make the AIDS virus transmissible by air,” but “[t]here was less agreement about the experiments at hand, which changed the characteristics of H5N1 bird flu.”
Pneumonia & Flu
Discussion Of NSABB Recommendation To Publish Controversial Bird Flu Studies To Continue In London Meeting
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s (NSABB) “reversal on publishing two controversial H5N1 studies is poised to shift discussions on the topic that continue in London this week, as more participants in the debate weigh in following the March 30 announcement,” CIDRAP News reports (Schnirring, 4/2). But Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, who is the acting chair of the panel, stressed on Monday that the “recommendation that two controversial papers on bird flu be published in full is not a reversal of the stand it took last year out of concerns over terrorism,” Reuters writes. “‘We had new information, confidential information, about benefits of this research, and we also had confidential information about the risks involved,'” Keim said, according to the news service (Kelland/Begley, 4/2).
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) on Friday recommended that revised versions of two controversial studies on H5N1 avian flu be published in scientific journals, reversing its previous recommendation that the studies only be published if certain details were withheld, the New York Times reports. The studies are the work of two research teams that created genetically altered viral strains that were airborne and therefore easily transmissible, the newspaper notes (Grady, 3/30). “In a statement [.pdf] released [Friday], the NSABB said it unanimously recommended that the revised manuscript by the University of Wisconsin group, headed by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, DVM, PhD, be published in full, and members voted 12 to six that the data, methods, and conclusions in the revised paper by the Erasmus group, headed by Ron Fouchier, PhD, be published,” CIDRAP News writes (Schnirring, 3/30).
“The U.S. government [on Thursday] released a new policy [.pdf] that will require federal agencies to systematically review the potential risks associated with federally funded studies involving 15 ‘high consequence’ pathogens and toxins, including the H5N1 avian influenza virus,” Science Insider reports. “The reviews are designed to reduce the risks associated with ‘dual use research of concern’ (DURC) that could be used for good or evil,” the news service writes (Malakoff, 3/29).
The debate about two studies showing that, with few genetic mutations, H5N1 bird flu strains could become more easily transmissible among ferrets, a laboratory model for humans, “has become a debate about the role of science in society. Two questions should be addressed here: should this type of research be conducted at all; and if so, should all data generated by this research be published?” Ab Osterhaus, head of the Institute of Virology, at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, writes in a Guardian opinion piece. A team from Erasmus conducted one of the two studies, he notes.
“As researchers from both sides of the debate over two controversial H5N1 studies weighed in [Tuesday] on full publication versus a more cautionary approach, two U.S. journals” — the Journal of Infectious Diseases (JID) and its sister publication, Clinical Infectious Diseases — “said they are developing policies to address any future such instances,” CIDRAP News writes. “We are developing policies that address these issues on a case-by-case basis, so that freedom of scientific expression can be maintained without sacrificing individual safety or national security,” JID Editor Martin Hirsch wrote in an editorial, the news service notes, adding, “He also introduced three new JID perspective pieces that discuss the difficult issues” (Schnirring, 3/28).
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is scheduled this week to hold “a closed-door meeting to once again look at unpublished manuscripts describing” two studies that showed how H5N1 bird flu virus could be manipulated to become transmissible among ferrets, a model for humans, NPR’s health blog “Shots” reports, noting that the meeting “will include a classified briefing from the intelligence community.” The article examines the “dual use” nature of the studies, meaning “legitimate scientific work that’s intended to advance science or medicine, but that also might be misused with the intent to do harm.” Though the “concept of dual use got a lot of attention even before this bird flu controversy,” scientists, institutions and funding agencies do not always have policies in place to review the potential consequences of research, the blog notes (Greenfieldboyce, 3/26).
Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general for health security and environment, “is hoping bird flu studies currently in publishing limbo will be released by the time the agency hosts a second meeting on the controversy this summer,” the Canadian Press/Winnipeg Free Press reports. “A major break in the impasse would be needed for that to happen,” the Canadian Press writes, adding, “As things currently stand, revised versions of the two studies are due to be presented late this month to the U.S. biosecurity panel that earlier recommended against their full publication.”
Rep. Sensenbrenner Sends ‘Fact-Finding Letter’ To White House Science Adviser About Bird Flu Studies
“Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a former head of the House committees on science and the judiciary, and currently vice chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, last week sent a ‘fact-finding letter’ to White House science adviser John Holdren, asking pointed questions about how the U.S. government has handled the controversy” surrounding two studies that showed how H5N1 bird flu virus could be manipulated to become transmissible among ferrets, a model for humans, “and questioning whether it should have funded the two flu studies,” ScienceInsider reports. “The [Obama] Administration’s response has appeared ad hoc, delayed, and inadequate,” Sensenbrenner writes, adding, “An ad hoc approach is inadequate to balance the priorities of public health and the free flow of academic ideas,” according to the article, which includes the full text of the letter.
U.S. Panel May Re-Evaluate Bird Flu Research After Scientists Present New Data About Risks To Humans
Speaking at the American Society for Microbiology’s (ASM) Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research meeting in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Ron Fouchier, the leader of the team at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands that genetically altered the bird flu virus, making it transmissible between ferrets and “touching off public fears of a pandemic, said … that the virus he created was neither as contagious nor as dangerous as people had been led to believe …, prompt[ing] the United States government to ask that the experiments be re-evaluated by a government advisory panel that recommended in December that certain details of the work be kept secret and not published,” the New York Times reports (Grady, 2/29).