“In a long-awaited study that helped prompt a contentious debate over the wisdom of conducting research that has the potential to help as well as harm, scientists reported Wednesday that they had engineered a mutant strain of [H5N1] bird flu that can spread easily between ferrets — a laboratory animal that responds to flu viruses much as people do,” the Los Angeles Times (Brown, 5/3). Published in the journal Nature, the study is “the first of two controversial papers about laboratory-enhanced versions of the deadly bird flu virus that initially sparked fears among U.S. biosecurity experts that it could be used as a recipe for a bioterrorism weapon,” Reuters writes (Steenhuysen, 5/2). The U.S. National Security Advisory Board on Biosecurity “had asked journals to hold off publishing” the studies, but “[t]he panel later dropped its objections after it became clear the engineered viruses were less virulent than had been feared,” according to the Washington Post (Brown, 5/2).
“The Dutch government has agreed to grant an export license to allow Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical University in Rotterdam, to publish his work on H5N1 avian influenza in Science,” Nature’s “News Blog” reports (Owens, 4/27). “Fouchier had to get permission first from the Dutch Department of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation — in line with E.U. regulations — because a risk existed that the H5N1 virus, as well as its research, ‘could be used for the wrong purposes,’ the Dutch department said in a statement,” according to Agence France-Presse (4/28).
“[T]he controversy over the research into the genetic modification of the H5N1 flu virus, finally approved for publication, should offer a reminder of the importance of debate” over dual-use technology, a Nature editorial states. “[D]ual-use basic research is a special case because its implications, for good and bad, are often viewed with the greatest clarity by only a small minority of people,” and often only “[t]he scientists involved (and they are increasingly specialists in very small fields) … can fully understand the risks posed by a line of research,” according to the editorial. “There are disadvantages to leaving it up to outsiders to initiate debate about risks, benefits and ethics,” the editorials states, noting three disadvantages, including the risk of misconceptions and a lack of knowledge about how to handle some research.
“This week, a Senate panel is investigating biological security in the wake of” controversial “potentially dangerous research” on H5N1 avian influenza, “with good reason,” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) writes in a Washington Times opinion piece. He says “the U.S. government should not have been caught by surprise” by the two research papers describing how genetic mutations to the virus could make it transmissible between ferrets, because the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) “was created in 2004 and charged with the specific responsibility of reviewing this type of research and offering guidance to all federal agencies that conduct biological research.” Sensenbrenner says the NSABB’s initial recommendation against publishing the studies and its subsequent reversal of that decision has left him with “suspicions that the U.S. government is woefully unprepared for dealing with dual use research of concern — research that, while conducted for a legitimate scientific purpose, could be dangerous if misused.”
Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center, “[t]he Dutch scientist at the center of the controversy over recent bird flu experiments, says that his team applied for government permission today to submit a paper describing their research to a science journal,” NPR’s health blog “Shots” reports, adding, “The Dutch government has asserted that the studies, which describe how to make bird flu virus more contagious, fall under regulations that control the export of weapons technology.” According to the news service, “He feels the government’s actions amount to censorship and has previously has said he did not want to apply for an export permit, because it would set a precedent” (Greenfieldboyce, 4/24). “Fouchier says that by conceding to the government’s request while continuing to contest the need for an export permit, he hopes to have found an acceptable compromise,” Nature writes.
Rep. Sensenbrenner Sends Second Letter Inquiring About U.S. Government’s Review Of Controversial H5N1 Studies
“A senior Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives is asking more questions about how the U.S. government reviewed two controversial H5N1 avian influenza studies, and how it wrote a new policy for reviewing taxpayer-funded studies that might be used for good and evil,” ScienceInsider reports. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) on Monday “sent a letter [.pdf] to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), asking him to clarify how the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) reached its recent decision to recommend publication of the two studies after recommending against publication late last year,” the news service writes, noting, “The letter also asks for more information on which government officials were involved” in the new policy regarding research that might be “dual use research of concern” (DURC).
The U.S. government on Friday formally accepted a recommendation from the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) “to publish two controversial studies of the H5N1 avian influenza virus, moving the pair of papers another step closer to publication,” ScienceInsider reports (Malakoff, 4/20). “Groups led by the two scientists — Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin and Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam — engineered the H5N1 virus to be more transmissible between ferrets, mammals whose response to the flu is most like humans,” Bloomberg Businessweek notes. “The research is critical to understanding and detecting bird flu strains, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said [on Friday] in a statement,” Bloomberg writes, noting that the NSABB “recommended in March that Sebelius and Collins approve publication” (Wayne, 4/20).
NSABB Calls For Global Guidelines For Conducting, Communicating Research Involving Dangerous Pathogens
NewScientist reports on the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s (NSABB) recommendation 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. According to the news service, dissent among the board members over the issue has prompted the committee to “propos[e] talks to draft global guidelines for doing and communicating work involving dangerous pathogens.”
“White House science adviser John Holdren has replied [.pdf] to questions asked last month by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) about how the Obama Administration has handled the controversy surrounding two studies that showed how to make the H5N1 avian influenza virus transmissible between mammals,” ScienceInsider reports. On March 1, “Sensenbrenner — a former head of the House of Representatives committees on science and the judiciary, and currently vice chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, sent a ‘fact-finding letter’ [.pdf] to Holdren” asking a “number of questions about how the government reviews potential ‘dual-use research of concern’ (DURC) that might be used for good or evil,” the news service writes.
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.”