Dec. 21: 9/11 has caught up with science, pitting the instinct to share information against the need for safety.
A US government advisory board has for the first time urged two top scientific journals, Science and Nature, to publish abbreviated versions of two research papers that describe experiments with a flu virus, fearing that their content could be misused by bioterrorists.
The non-binding recommendation from the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to the researchers who submitted the papers and to the journals editors has generated a debate over censorship on potentially sensitive scientific research.
Ever since the tightening of security after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, scientists have been worrying about the day that appears to have come now.
The manuscripts by researchers at the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US describe laboratory experiments that resulted in flu viruses with enhanced transmissibility.
The experiments suggest that the H5N1 flu virus has greater potential to be transmitted among mammals, including perhaps humans, than previously believed.
While the public health benefits of such research can be important, certain information obtained through such studies has the potential to be misused for harmful purposes, the US health and human services department said, explaining the decision to recommend changes in the manuscripts.
The US health department said the NSABB had recommended that the conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published but that the manuscripts should not include the methodology and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.
The journals, the advisory board, the researchers and government officials have been grappling with the findings for several months. In late November, the board contacted the journals about its recommendation to restrict the information.
Science, the US journal that received a manuscript from the Erasmus Medical Centre, has said it is evaluating how best to proceed. The NSABB has emphasised the need to prevent the details from falling into the wrong hands, said Bruce Alberts, the editor-in-chief of Science.
We strongly support the work of NSABB... at the same time Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public health information from responsible influenza researchers, Alberts said. Its a precedent-setting moment, and we need to be careful about the precedent we set.
If the journals withhold the information, they are expected to insist that the US government create a system to provide the missing data to legitimate scientists worldwide who need it.
Knowledge about the virus described in the experiments could well be essential for speeding the development of new treatments to combat the lethal form of influenza.
The Erasmus scientists have discovered how the virus could easily change into a variant that is a threat to humans. But the information they have found can be used to prevent the occurrence of a pandemic or to develop vaccines and medication before such pandemics occur, it said.
The virus causes bird flu which rarely infects people but has an extraordinarily high death rate when it does. Since the virus was first detected in 1997, about 600 people have contracted it and more than half have died. Most cases have been in Asia.
Scientists have watched the virus, worrying that if it developed the ability to spread easily from person to person, it could create one of the deadliest pandemics ever.