A U.S. government panel today unanimously recommended that scientists limit publication of their results relating to bird flu.
We found the potential risk of public harm to be of unusually high magnitude. In formulating our recommendations to the government, scientific journals and to the broader scientific community, we tried to balance the great risks against the benefits that could come from making the details of this research known. Because the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) found that there was significant potential for harm in fully publishing these results and that the harm exceeded the benefits of publication, we therefore recommended that the work not be fully communicated in an open forum. The NSABB was unanimous that communication of the results in the two manuscripts it reviewed should be greatly limited in terms of the experimental details and results.
As much as I am almost always in favor of the free flow of information, in this case this recommendation seems quite reasonable. The situation is in many ways identical to the government’s policy to routinely limit publication of the engineering details of its weaponry.
In a letter published jointly [pdf] in Science and Nature today, the researchers who have discovered how to easily transmit avian influenza — commonly called bird flu — have agreed to a sixty day voluntary pause in their research.
Despite the positive public health benefits these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible H5 HA viruses may escape from the laboratories has generated intense public debate in the media on the benefits and potential harm of this type of research. We would like to assure the public that these experiments have been conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release. Whether the ferret-adapted influenza viruses have the ability to transmit from human to human cannot be tested. We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks. We propose to do so in an international forum in which the scientific community comes together to discuss and debate these issues. We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work. To provide time for these discussions, we have agreed on a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals. In addition, no experiments with live H5N1 or H5 HA reassortant viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets will be conducted during this time.
The situation is difficult. This research is important as it helps scientists understand how flu is transmitted. At the same time, this research is very dangerous, as it could be used by evil people to kill millions.