The N5N1 virus is the most virulent of avian influenza viruses. Image: Flickr / Image Editor / CC-BY

Scientific journals published in the United States usually have First Amendment protection. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, however, has requested that two journals publish redacted versions of recently completed research, in the name of national security.

The disputed bird flu studies

The U.S. National Institutes of Health helped pay for two studies intended to measure how easily H5N1 avian influenza transmits between humans. Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin both genetically engineered the flu virus in order to study what changes made the virus more or less transmittable, using ferrets to study the transmission. Diseases that transmit between ferrets easily usually transmit just as easily among humans. The genetically modified virus spread quickly and easily through the air, making it significantly more virulent than the original H5N1 virus.

Requests for redaction

Now that the researchers have completed their study and submitted it for publication to scientific journals, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has requested that the journals publish heavily redacted versions of the research. This would prevent the recipe for making the highly virulent H5N1 from being published in the public domain. The NSABB is concerned that if the full formula is published, bioterrorists will be able to use the information to make a highly virulent bioweapon.

Controversial questions

In an interview with USA Today, Nature’s editor-in-chief, Dr. Philip Campbell, called the recommendations unprecedented. “It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers,” he said in a statement. The journal is discussing how “appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled.”

Though journals are still sorting out how and if they will be publishing the information from these studies, the scientific community is still debating if this research should have even been done. H5N1 is the most highly virulent version of avian influenza, and the genetic mutation makes it even more dangerous. The modified viruses are being stored at the universities that did the research, though without guards or enhanced security procedures.


Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/20/us-birdflu-usa-censorship-idUSTRE7BJ1O720111220
Daily Mail UK: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2076422/Bird-flu-potential-infect-millions-grown-DELIBERATELY-Dutch-laboratory.html
USA Today: http://yourlife.usatoday.com/health/story/2011-12-20/US-says-dont-publish-recipe-for-lab-bred-bird-flu/52109034/1

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