Scientists at Ermasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in the process of attempting to create new flu vacines, have developed a highly lethal and highly contagious strain of the bird flu. There is now debate about whether publishing how it was done is appropriate.


Per the article:


In a press release from Erasmus Medical Center, Fouchier said it's possible for the virus to change into a form that can infect humans. "We have discovered that this is indeed possible, and more easily than previously thought", said Fouchier. "In the laboratory, it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol transmissible virus that can easily be rapidly spread through the air. This process could also take place in a natural setting.".... NSABB does not have the power to prevent publication of scientific findings, but it can request that journals not publish certain studies (bold added)...."It's just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus, and it's a second bad idea to publish how they did it so others can copy it," Inglesby said....Other biosecurity experts, however, aren't as sure. Dr. Harvey Rubin, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis, said the research, based upon what's been made public, seems to fall under the category of dual use, but without knowing more, isn't sure it shouldn't be published. "This work would really show how to increase the transmissibility of an infectious agent, but does that mean it could be used for harm? Absolutely not. Does it mean it shouldn't be published? No," he said. He also added that it's entirely possible that a potential terrorist already knows about these same mutations, which aren't new. But he stressed the research needs to be reviewed carefully before it is published. 


Update 1: Per the Nature article below NSABB has made a recommendation and the journals, Nature and Science have responded as follows:


On 20 December, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) released a statement outlining its recommendations to the authors of the two flu studies under review, and to the editors of the journals that are considering publishing them. The statement says: 

"Due to the importance of the findings to the public health and research communities, the NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm. The NSABB also recommended that language be added to the manuscripts to explain better the goals and potential public health benefits of the research, and to detail the extensive safety and security measures taken to protect laboratory workers and the public." 

In response, Science's Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts said: 

"Science editors will be evaluating how best to proceed. Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the US government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety." 

In response, Nature's Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell said: 

"We have noted the unprecedented NSABB recommendations that would restrict public access to data and methods and recognise the motivation behind them. It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers. We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled."


Update 2: NSABB, scientists, and the journals, Nature and Science, continue to debate the best way to proceed with the publication of work on increasing the transmissibility of the deadly H5N1 avian flu virus. Per the Nature article below:


Since its inception, Keim says that the NSABB has only been asked to review six papers, including two in 2005 that described the reconstruction of the 1918 influenza virus that is thought to have killed more than 20 million people. In that case, the board recommended that the papers simply be amended to spell out the public-health benefits of the research. But the stakes are higher for the H5N1 work, because the altered viruses readily spread between laboratory ferrets breathing the same air. If the same were true in humans, the new strains could combine H5N1’s high death rate — much higher than the 1918 flu — with seasonal flu’s rapid transmission (see Nature 480, 421–422; 2011). Add in uncertainties about the efficacy and availability of vaccines and drugs to combat the virus, and the risk of misuse becomes more frightening than any other case that the board has considered, says NSABB member Kenneth Berns, a microbiologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The editors-in-chief of Nature and Science have both acknowledged the NSABB’s concerns, but say that they are reserving judgement about whether to censor the papers until the US government provides details of how it will allow genuine researchers to obtain redacted information.........In the course of its deliberations over the H5N1 papers, the NSABB became aware of additional work on H5N1 transmissibility that was nearing publication. Keim says the board is now considering whether to recommend a voluntary moratorium on the publication of such work until the community can discuss further precautions to prevent misuse.


Update 3: Amy Patterson is the director of the National Institute of Health - Office of Science Policy which administers NSABB, the board that advises on publishing scientific information that could be harmful to society. She has now taken the lead from NSABB and has just undergone a question and answer session (see article below) with the journal, Nature, pertaining to the publication of recent findings on increasing the transmissibility of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus and the broader issues associated with such dilemmas. Per the article:


When do you anticipate providing recommendations on how to restrict access to the full content of these papers? 


There are great efforts under way right now, with people working deep into the night seven days a week. We’re pushing to have something ready in the next couple of weeks. I think it will be a learning experience that we’ll go through with the scientific community, with the public, and with the international community. Whatever mechanism is put in place will need to evolve in light of that experience....The US government will be coming out with a draft policy that will present a comprehensive framework for oversight of dual-use research, and the local review component of that will be outlined. This will be very much informed by our recent experiences. There will also be an opportunity for comment from the scientific community, from institutions, and of course from the general public. So people will have a chance to weigh in and help shape what the ultimate requirements will be.


Update 4: Ten experts make recommendations in the journal, Nature, on how to proceed with research and publication associated with increasing the transmissibility of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus:


Update 5: On January 21, 2012 in a statement published concurrently in the journals, Nature and Science, leading scientists in the area of flu research called for a 60 day moratorium on further research aimed at increasing the transmissibility of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus. Per the first article below:


“I am very much in favour of having a pause,” says Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). He concedes that the length of the pause is not long, but that researchers were concerned about having an open-ended moratorium. “60 days as a start I think is reasonable, and after 60 days we will re-evaluate it,” he says.


Update 6: Scientists continue to discuss the benefits and risks of research aimed at increasing the transmissibility of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus. Per the second article below:


However, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has recommended that details of both studies (including the mutations that confer transmissibility) should be restricted, and released only to select individuals on a 'need-to-know' basis. I acknowledge the advisory role of the NSABB, but I do not concur with its decision.....The redaction of our manuscript, intended to contain risk, will make it harder for legitimate scientists to get this information while failing to provide a barrier to those who would do harm.....Flu investigators (including me) have agreed to a 60-day moratorium on avian flu transmission research ( because of the current controversy. But our work remains urgent — we cannot give up.


Update 7: A panel of 22 influenza experts convened by the World Health Organization in Geneva to address the controversial studies on increasing the transmissibility of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus has decided that each should be published in full. Per the first article below:


A two-day meeting of 22 experts convened in Geneva by the World Health Organization which ended this afternoon has concluded that two controversial flu studies should be published in full. The research— which created ferret-transmissible strains of avian H5N1 flu virus — will be published after a delay of probably a few months, which the experts argue is needed to explain better the public-health benefits of the research and allay public concerns over the safety of the work.


Update 8: Dutch government says researchers may not publish their work without an export license. Researchers say if necessary they will submit their work for publication without applying for the license. Researchers then apply for the license under protest. Dutch government grants the license. Their work is published in the June 21, 2012 issue of the journal, Science.


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Replies to This Discussion

I read the article and it says they are worried about the virus becoming a bio weapon. I wonder why they didn't think of that first before creating it.

Not only that, why are they telling everybody about it?

This is a case of "Dual use" and the techniques used to create the new strain have not been published yet - which is crucial, of course.

This is a case of "Dual use"...

Per the article: is undergoing review by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a government committee tasked with assessing research known as "dual use," meaning it has scientific value, but could also pose a threat to public health. The NSABB does not have the power to prevent publication of scientific findings, but it can request that journals not publish certain studies.

The simple act of publicizing the virus puts countries like Iran in a mode of wanting to replicate it or something like it. 

On the contrary, this arrogantly assumes that Eastern bloc countries do not have the knowledge or resources to create such a virus. For all we know, they already have.

The dual use here comes into play because without knowledge of such technology, we are powerless to prevent it if used against us.

Incidentally, John, when changing the context of online articles (such as adding bold type for stress), it's customary to point that out just in case people don't refer back.

An argument can easily be made that such research should be allowed only under very controlled conditions (not merely a medical center) as it might otherwise result in the viruses finding their way into a casual environment. Moreover, publicizing it instigates countries like Iran and organizations sympathetic to radical Islam to develop in kind. Why is publicizing it not an outrage?

Such research is carried out under highly controlled lab conditions - this allows highly controlled evolution; but that's not to say that the self-same evolution could not happen in the world's laboratory (our biosphere). I don't know what sort of environmental controls were used to keep this pathogen under "lock and key" as we only have some Internet news story to go on.

Publication of this finding may make terrorists (and there are Christian terrorists too, let's not forget) develop their own - or it may not.

The difference is that we know about this; we cannot know that some terrorist organisation at home or abroad has already done this or is in the advanced stages of doing so. Either way, they are not going to broadcast it - they would only release such a thing if they had some way of controlling the collateral damage. Unless, of course, they were doing some form of 12 Monkeys scenario.

Someone, somewhere will do research - and not always ethically; this is a fact and I feel that we're better off knowing the results of that research than suffering the consequences of blind ignorance.

I don't think people doing this kind of research should have a first calling of developing flu vaccines.

It sounds like a bad idea to publish this technique.

why scientists are so eager to destroy everything by inventing viruses, weapons and other killing machine than to protect and preserve and make the world more beautiful ?

i don't understand the point. please explain me.

You might start by thinking, "you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs" but the real reason is far more complex.

Knowledge (and the quest for more knowledge is a double-edged sword).

Many things have dual use - even the humble kitchen knife can be used to cut a slice of cheese or take a life. Does that mean we should ban all kitchen knives?

Well. the scientists have first commited the mistake of developing this virus and then have compounded it by publishing it. I now hope that they will be able to totally destroy the virus  as well as the formula to produce the same





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