The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) yesterday tried to put a lid on a huge scientific controversy by asking both Science and Nature to publish only abbreviated versions of new research on the H5N1 avian flu virus. As I am sure many of you are already well aware, Ron Fouchier, Ph.D., from the Rotterdam-based Erasmus Medical Center, has genetically engineered H5N1 so that it is transmissible by air among ferrets. It so happens that the ferrets’ immune response to the flu is very similar to that of humans.
The NSABB cannot require the two journals to censor the research papers, but Bruce Alberts, Ph.D., Science’s editor in chief, noted that he will seriously consider the board’s request. In a statement released yesterday by Science before the panel’s formal request, Dr. Alberts said that “the NSABB on November 30 verbally asked Science to delete details regarding both scientific methodology and specific viral mutations before publishing” Dr. Fouchier’s research article.
What had caused a good deal of ruckus is that a number of scientists believe that this mutated strain of H5N1 could be so deadly that if it somehow escaped from the lab or fell into the hands of bioterrorists, millions of people could die in the ensuing influenza pandemic. A debate had been going on as to whether only part of Dr. Fouchier’s research should be written up in a scientific journal or if all the details about how he created the new flu strain should be made public.
Some scientists argued that a super potent and deadly form of H5N1 might already be brewing out there in nature right now. They said Dr. Fouchier’s full research results should be published so that virologists can get a head start on studying the genetically engineered microorganism and begin to develop therapeutics and vaccines against any new and deadly H5N1 viruses that nature could already be cooking up. Other researchers countered that such a move could lead to a global catastrophe if the instructions for creating such a potentially deadly virus were obtained by bioterrorists by reading the full article in a scientific journal.
Scientific opinions have ranged from “This work should never have been done,” according to Richard Ebright, from Rutgers University, who was quoted in ScienceInsider, to “They should definitely publish…We should forget about bioterrorism and concentrate on Mother Nature,” said professor John Oxford from Barts and the London School of Medicine, during an interview with BBC News Health.
While I appreciate both sides of the debate, Prof. Oxford’s comment that “we should forget about bioterrorism” strikes me as naïve and ill informed, to say the least. Isn’t he the slightest bit concerned that around the globe there may be dozens and dozens of evildoers, a number of whom probably possess varying degrees of scientific expertise, who would not think twice about developing a Satan Bug and turning it loose upon the world?
So far, H5N1 primarily strikes avian species. But the World Health Organization reports that half of the 573 people who developed the disease after coming into contact with infected birds have died. A mortality rate of over 50% cannot be ignored.
I congratulate the NSABB on its request that only an abbreviated version of the paper should be published. I also concur with the sentiment that more of the specific details of Dr. Fouchier’s research be made available to reputable scientists so that they can study the mutated virus in depth. Such a decision would ensure that vital scientific research can continue while maximizing efforts to maintain the public’s safety.