Virologists Debating Value of Flu Research Moratorium

The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the scientists involved and the journals Nature and Science to remove certain details when two papers on H5N1 transmissibility are published.

The possibility that two prominent scientific journals will withhold key details from research papers describing genetic changes that made the H5N1 influenza virus more transmissible in mammals has sparked a debate among virologists. A federal advisory committee, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, asked the scientists involved and the journals Nature and Science to remove certain details when two papers are published, saying it fears the information could be useful to terrorists.

The committee's chairman, Paul Keim, is quoted in a ScienceInsider post written by Martin Enserink as saying the panel wants researchers to agree to a moratorium of perhaps three months on publishing their data, not on actually conducting the research, and he said the moratorium is justified because H5N1 has a high fatality risk in humans and poses a significant pandemic risk.

A committee member, Michael J. Imperiale, Ph.D., professor in the University of Michigan Medical School's Department of Microbiology and Immunology, posted a comment about the matter on the Virology blog (http://www.virology.ws/2011/12/20/a-bad-day-for-science/) in which he says the moratorium is justified because H5N1's current mortality rate is in the 60 percent range, and the world lacks an effective vaccine or adequate supplies of antiviral drugs.

Keim told Enserink that an international discussion, probably involving the World Health Organization, must take place about this type of research and how it can be published and presented at meetings.

The New York Times published an interview Dec. 27 with Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC, a medical center in the Netherlands, where research funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health showed how the flu virus could be changed into a variant that is a greater public health threat. Erasmus MC announced Dec. 20 that its scientists will follow the committee's recommendation to withhold details of the results. "The Rotterdam-based researchers, however, state 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 announcement states. "Erasmus MC researchers are currently working on a new manuscript that complies with the recommendation made by the NSABB. In addition, they call for a more international approach to so-called dual use research, studies in which the results can be used for both good and evil purposes." (http://www.erasmusmc.nl/perskamer/archief/2011/3530639/?lang=en)

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