A bad day for science

20 December 2011

The virologists who carried out the contentious experiments on influenza H5N1 transmission in ferrets have agreed to remove certain details from their manuscript, according to ScienceInsider:

Two groups of scientists who carried out highly controversial studies with the avian influenza virus H5N1 have reluctantly agreed to strike certain details from manuscripts describing their work after having been asked to do so by a U.S. biosecurity council. The as-yet unpublished papers, which are under review at Nature and Science, will be changed to minimize the risks that they could be misused by would-be bioterrorists.

Apparently a second manuscript on similarly sensitive material, submitted to Nature, has been studied by the NASBB and its details will also be redacted. Members of both scientific groups disagree with the decision.

The article hints that details of the experiments may be made available to influenza virologists ‘with a legitimate interest in knowing them’. Who will decide what constitutes a legitimate interest? And what if a virologist, or another scientist who does not work on influenza virus, has an idea for an experiment and would like the details? Will they be denied because they are not card-carrying influenza virologists? Science often works in unusual ways, and one of them is that difficult problems are often solved by individuals from different areas of research.

I agree with Albert Osterhaus, who noted that this debate could have been held in 2005 when the complete genome sequence of the 1918 pandemic influenza virus strain was released. That H1N1 strain is known to be lethal and transmitted efficiently among humans. In contrast, it is not known if the ferret-passaged influenza H5N1 virus would be transmitted in people and cause disease.

This is a bad day for virology, and for science in general. The decision by the NSABB sets a precedent for censoring future experimental results whose wide dissemination would benefit, not harm, humanity.

Update: A member of the NSABB has written about the committee’s thoughts on this issue. See comments below.