U.S. Says Details Of Flu Experiments Should Stay Secret

Dec 20, 2011
Originally published on December 21, 2011 9:35 am

A committee that advises the government says that details of two controversial experiments on bird flu virus should not be made public, because of fears that the work could provide a recipe for a bioweapon.

The government-funded experiments were done by researchers who wanted to understand if bird flu virus might change in the future to cause a pandemic in people. By tweaking genes, they made the deadly bird flu virus more contagious between lab animals.

In a landmark decision, an expert panel known as the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which advises the government, says key details of the work should not be published openly.

This is the first time such a recommendation has been made even though the scientific community has discussed concerns about the potential misuse of biological research since the 2001 attacks and subsequent anthrax mailings. The life sciences have traditionally had a culture of openness, with all experiments published publicly so that others can replicate and learn from them.

In a statement announcing the committee's decision, the National Institutes of Health said the government will set up a new system to give the worrisome bird flu information only to legitimate public health researchers.

The Department of Health and Human Services agreed with the assessment and passed it along to the scientists and journals. The recommendations of the committee aren't binding on science journals and on the researchers themselves, who still could choose to publish their work.

The researchers and the journals involved appear to be taking the advice of the expert committee seriously. But they await details on how the government will ensure that legitimate researchers still have access to the information, despite the security concerns.

One of the experiments was done by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and his colleagues. In a statement released today, the medical center said that "the researchers have reservations about this recommendation but will observe it."

The statement from Erasmus Medical Center notes that "that confidentiality is almost impossible given the fact that the data has to be shared with hundreds of researchers and governments. Furthermore, academic and press freedom will be at stake as a result of the recommendation. This has never happened before."

The other experiment was led by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In a statement, the university said that "the recommendations made by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity have been communicated to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the researchers here studying the H5N1 avian influenza virus. As they work with the journal to make the research available to the scientific community, the investigators will respect those recommendations."

The journal Nature's Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell said:

"We have noted the unprecedented NSABB recommendations that would restrict public access to data and methods and recognise the motivation behind them. It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers. 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 journal Science is considering publishing Fouchier's paper and the editor-in-chief of Science, Bruce Alberts, said his journal is still evaluating how to proceed.

He says the editors want to ensure that all responsible scientists will have access, even those overseas, because the work could speed development of new treatments. He noted that the journal's final decision will depend heavily on further steps taken by the government.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. For the first time, the federal government is asking scientists to keep details secret from controversial experiments, out of fear the information could be used to create a biological weapon.

The two genetic experiments involved bird flu. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce first told us about the research last month. The virus was altered, making it potentially much more dangerous to people.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Ever since 2001 and the anthrax attacks, biologists have discussed the fact that their legitimate work to understand diseases might sometimes have a dark side. This has mostly been a theoretical discussion until the recent bird flu experiments.

Bird flu rarely infects people. But when it does, it can be deadly. Scientists wanted to know if this virus was capable of mutating in a way that would make it spread easily between people and cause a pandemic. So they altered its genes in the lab, produced a new flu virus that was far more contagious, and submitted their work for publication.

PAUL KEIM: You know, this is a watershed moment, in the sense that I don't think any researcher has been ever asked to not publish important results like this before.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Paul Keim is a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University. He chairs the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. That's a committee set up by the government to offer advice on biology that could be misused.

It recently reviewed two manuscripts describing the bird flu experiments, and unanimously agreed that key details about the methods should be removed before publication.

KEIM: To prevent someone else from exactly replicating the work.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even though the government paid for this research, it can't legally censor it. So officials have asked the scientists to censor themselves. They've made the same request of the science journals considering publishing these papers. Officials say they will set up a system that will give secure access to the sensitive information to those public health researchers who really need it to develop new therapies and vaccines. That system will have to screen scientists, not just in the U.S. but all around the globe.

Bruce Alberts is editor-in-chief of the journal Science, which wants to publish one of the papers in some form. He says he respects the advice of the committee, and his journal is evaluating how to proceed. Their decision will depend on the next steps made by the government.

BRUCE ALBERTS: I think it's critically important that we announce to the world, at the same time as we publish this paper, how scientists anywhere in the world with a legitimate right to know can get this information.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One of the experiments was done at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. Researchers there issued a statement saying they would follow the recommendations. But they say the data will need to be shared with hundreds of researchers and governments, so keeping control of it will be almost impossible.

That point was echoed by Richard Ebright, a chemist at Rutgers University. He's long been calling for stricter oversight of biological research that could pose a threat. He says the government's response is window-dressing.

RICHARD EBRIGHT: We do not have a proposed system of effective oversight. We have a public relations management exercise designed to minimize public concern and deflect calls for effective oversight.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the government should be requiring mandatory reviews of worrisome research before it's done because the real danger is the lab-created virus itself. There's no guarantee it won't escape.

Amy Patterson is associate director for science policy at the National Institutes of Health. She says the government is in the process of developing a new framework for overseeing research.

AMY PATTERSON: It's not an easy task to walk that delicate tightrope and have a system in place that minimizes the potential for misuse and yet, at the same time, really enable science to move forward in the way that we need it to.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says proposed regulations will be issued in the next month or two, for public comment.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.