Can Censorship Stop Bioterrorism? Open Science Is the Best Defense against a Deadly Avian Flu Attack

By Bailey, Ronald | Reason, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Can Censorship Stop Bioterrorism? Open Science Is the Best Defense against a Deadly Avian Flu Attack


Bailey, Ronald, Reason


IN JANUARY, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended that the journals Nature and Science restrict publication of controversial new research relevant to the transmission of avian flu between humans. The fear: Would-be bioterrorists may be combing the pages of technical publications for tips on how to wreak havoc.

The H5N1 avian flu virus has killed 60 percent of the 600 or so people known to have come down with it since it was first identified in 1997. (By comparison, seasonal flu in the United States kills about 0.1 percent of those who catch it.) So far the H5N1 virus has not become easily transmissible between humans. But recently two research teams, one in the Netherlands and another in Wisconsin, reported that they had succeeded in transforming the virus into versions that can be passed through the air between mammals via respiratory droplets. In the normal course of scientific research, the teams approached Science and Nature about publishing their results.

Reports of this research, however, provoked worries that publishing the recipe for transmitting the flu virus could enable bioterrorists to unleash a devastating global epidemic that might kill billions of people. Concerned journal editors and peer reviewers sought advice from the NSABB, a federally chartered committee of 25 outside experts that advises the government on possible public health threats posed by biological research. In December the NSABB recommended that the journals withhold the research details.

In February, a panel of 22 prominent influenza researchers meeting under the auspices of the World Health Organization rejected the NSABB's recommendation. The panel agreed that publication should be delayed, but that both studies should be published in full within a few months. The voluntary two-month research moratorium for the two teams was extended pending a further biosafety review.

Research moratoriums are not new to the life sciences. Back in 1974, several prominent biologists concerned about the "potential bio-hazards" posed by then-new gene-splicing techniques that had been described in leading scientific journals called for a time-out on certain kinds of experiments. A year later, a group of 140 scientists, along with a few lawyers and journalists, convened at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California, where they proposed a scheme for containing gene-spliced organisms in laboratories. This evolved into laboratory regulations under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health.

The NSABB cited the gene-splicing precedent in its avian flu recommendation, saying, "We believe that this is another Asilomar-type moment for public health and infectious-disease research that urgently needs our attention." That's about right, but not necessarily in a good way.

The positive spin on history is that the 1974 research moratorium and the 1975 Asilomar meeting calmed public fears and eventually enabled new biotech research to proceed. But some participants now disagree, arguing that the call for temporarily halting research instead inflamed the public. "I knew the [Asilomar] letter would give rise to a sort of fire-storm of ill-informed brave new world stuff," said Asilomar participant and former New York Times science reporter Victor McElheny in 2009.

In fact, The New York Times in 1976 helped fan the flames of "brave new world stuff" by publishing an article titled "New Strains of Life--Or Death," in which Cornell University biochemist Liebe Cavalieri warned that gene splicing could lead to accidental outbreaks of infectious cancer. "In the case of recombinant DNA," Cavalieri warned, "it is an all or none situation--only one accident is needed to endanger the future of mankind." Forty years after the first gene-splicing experiments by biologists Paul Berg, Herbert Boyer, and Stanley Cohen, unregulated molecular biology experiments are common in high school science classes, and humanity is not yet afflicted with lab-made super-cancers. …

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