Two months after touching off controversy by asking both Science and Nature to publish only abbreviated versions of new research on the H5N1 avian flu virus, members of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) said they are working to develop a dual-use policy that balances the desire to spread scientific knowledge to researchers with the need to keep it away from people or groups with evil in mind.
In a statement published Jan. 31 in both journals, the 22 NSABB members said they recently discussed asking the scientific community to self-impose a moratorium on broad communication of the results of experiments showing enhanced virulence or transmissibility of the influenza A/H5N1 virus and other dangerous microbes.
“This moratorium would run until consensus is reached on the balance that must be struck between academic freedom and protecting the greater good of humankind from potential danger,” the NSABB members wrote. “With proper diligence and rapid achievement of a consensus on a proper path forward, this could have little detrimental effect on scientific progress but significant effect on diminishing risk.”
While H5N1 primarily strikes avian species to date, the World Health Organization has reported that half of the 573 people who developed the disease after coming into contact with infected birds have died.
NSABB said a parallel existed for a self-imposed scientific moratorium: In the 1970s, when recombinant DNA technologies were perfected, concerns about their risk prompted scientists to withhold information about them at the 1975 Asilomar Conference, until they could develop guidance for safe and responsible conduct of such research.
“We believe that this is another Asilomar-type moment for public-health and infectious-disease research that urgently needs our attention,” the NSABB members concluded.
NSABB drew criticism from some scientists when it requested in November that Science delete details regarding both scientific methodology and specific viral mutations for a genetically engineered H5N1, based on research led by Ron Fouchier, Ph.D., of the Rotterdam-based Erasmus Medical Center. The advisory board made a similar request concerning data in a study set to be published in Nature and led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Tokyo and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
While NSABB lacks power to censor the two journals or other publications, the advisory board said it recommended the research not be published in an open forum because “there was significant potential for harm in fully publishing these results and that the harm exceeded the benefits of publication.”
“Our concern is that publishing these experiments in detail would provide information to some person, organization or government that would help them to develop similar mammal-adapted influenza A/H5N1 viruses for harmful purposes,” the advisory board wrote. “We believe that as scientists and as members of the general public, we have a primary responsibility 'to do no harm' as well as to act prudently and with some humility as we consider the immense power of the life sciences to create microbes with novel and unusually consequential properties,” the NSABB members said in their latest statement.
“Although scientists pride themselves on the creation of scientific literature that defines careful methodology that would allow other scientists to replicate experiments, we do not believe that widespread dissemination of the methodology in this case is a responsible action,” they added.
On Jan. 20, Drs. Kawaoka, Fournier, and Adolfo Garcia-Sastre of Mount Sinai School of Medicine said they agreed on a voluntary 60-day pause on research into H5N1 viruses leading to viruses 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. We will continue to assess the transmissibility of H5N1 influenza viruses that emerge in nature and pose a continuing threat to human health,” the scientists stated.
The scientists also proposed an international forum for the scientific community to discuss, and agree on how to publish results of their research: “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.”