A bad day for science

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 The as-yet unpublished papers, which are under review at Nature and Science, will be changed to minimize the risks that they could be misused by would-be bioterrorists.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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • colm 20 December 2011, 5:50 pm

    I look forward to a holiday season explaining this controversy to family. I was discussing it with my father several weeks ago when the story broke and used many of the same points as ya’ll in TWiV. Not being a blogger (or terribly professional as far as social media) I think this is the most effective way to spread rational discussion of this issue. Other ideas?

  • profvrr 20 December 2011, 6:02 pm

    This is a good place to discuss this issue, but it will also be discussed in many different places, and it would be useful if they could all be aggregated in one place. I don’t know how to do that, and I also can’t find everything that is written about it everywhere else. 

  • Connor Bamford 20 December 2011, 6:05 pm

    Has this ever happened in any other fields outside of virology, where ‘independent’ groups have effectively shut down communication of research? And are examples of times when we have been grateful that specific knowledge was shared that could have also been prevented from being released into the public domain?

  • profvrr 20 December 2011, 6:21 pm

    I can’t think of any examples in science; but a TWiV listener pointed out the book “The Crime of Reason” by Robert Laughlin, in which he discusses scientific knowledge that is being hidden and classified. He discusses how information about nuclear weapons is hidden – and how this model is being extended to the life sciences in the name of bioterrorism. I will make it a listener pick this week but it’s relevant to this discussion.

  • Brian Hanley 20 December 2011, 10:00 pm

    You have my complete agreement! Below is my letter to the NSABB.
    Dear NSABB:
        I was not able to locate emails for all of you. The list of missing
    members is at the end. My sincere apologies to those not included.


        I would like to point out a couple of things. 

        First, the part of the study that I have read which is being
    considered for redaction is specific mutation point sequence info. This
    information is useful to scientists and diagnosticians. It is not
    useful to Violent Non-State Actors (VNSA’s) we are concerned with for
    reasons I will explain.

        The kind of parties who could make use of that information to
    manufacture an organism would require high tech equipment and
    laboratory access. This requires money and considerable education as to
    how to use it.  It requires a significant ability to creatively solve
    problems. In the context of polio, smallpox and the 1917 virus genomes
    being public information, the addition of this H5N1 data does not
    represent anything significant. If those parties were going to
    manufacture an organism using sequence data, they would already be
    doing it. Please note that there is plenty of money, and there are
    laboratories with such equipment today, in regions known for financial
    support of such terrorist groups.

        The VNSA’s of concern are almost entirely of quite limited
    technical education with very few exceptions.  Those parties do not
    have a scientists and labs at their disposal to make use of such
    information.  They have already declared that they are seeking
    biological weapons. There have been fatwas approving of the use of CBW
    on enemies. A certain gentleman is in prison in England for such a
    fatwa. If those VNSA’s had the capacity to manufacture a bioweapon
    using sequence data, they would have used that capacity already and
    done so. So far they have not produced a bioweapon with such equally
    dangerous sequence information.

        Yes, not having deployed a bioweapon yet (presuming Dr. Ivins guilt)
    does not mean they never will. Perhaps they are trying to make a
    weapon now, we cannot know for sure. But if
    they are doing so now, they are using previously published information.
    This addition doesn’t matter much. It’s just another lollipop in the
    candy store for such parties.

        Second, what is useful information to the VNSA’s we are concerned
    with is the general method. Infecting an animal and passaging from one
    to the next is not hard. It does not require high tech apparatus for
    the most part. It is something that could be done in a cave in the
    mountains, or in a compound in a city. It could be done in a basement
    anywhere in the developed world. For people unconcerned with human
    life, it could be done using people who were either prisoners taken in
    battle, kidnapped, tricked, or even volunteers for the cause. It could
    be done in a few tents.

        That passaging technique has been published to the general public
    twice before. Laurie Garret had it in one of her books, I think it was
    “Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health”. I remember
    reading it also in Ken Alibek’s “Biohazard”.  The passaging method has
    now been published in several semi-popular articles about the
    deliberations of the committee on this matter. Thus, that horse is out
    of the barn and well into the next county. Not much point to barring
    the barn door now. Best to suck it up and improve readiness.


        I think the greatest concern is that the general method of
    passaging microbes hit the mass media. The VNSA’s we are concerned
    about are well plugged in to our mass media, not so much into
    scientific journals. I am all too aware of the weird goldfish bowl that
    US news media create to those outside our borders. While we are barely
    aware of them, we are in their face every day. Just turn on the TV or
    browse CNN overseas and it’s all right there, from Kim Kardashian’s
    tribulations to Congressional testimony.

        Yes, one could ask if the VNSA’s would have problems transporting H5N1. But I imagine that they would solve that using suicide human vectors. Those gentlemen can cut the Gordian knot of biosafety which we worry over so much. For them it would be a kill ratio calculation. Just
    like any other commanders, they want positive kill ratios for their expenditure of personnel. A human biodeployment would be highly positive, much more positive than a car or truck bomb. Note that human suicide vectors would be the best way to introduce human transmissible
    H5N1. I could go on about what they would likely instruct their suicide vectors to do, but I don’t think that is necessary. Our best bet if they do it is that we catch it early.

        Our primary concern is response capability. That capability is best served by dissemination so that there is no problem with diagnostics or tracking of H5N1 that is close to natural evolutionary crossover. After all, nature is quite the bioterrorist, with no human help. Is nature the worst bioterrorist? So far, yes. Not the worst in theory, but so far it is. We must keep in
    mind that medicine is bioterrorism response and diagnostics are surveillance.  We should not interfere with those.

        Consequently, I think our biggest risk is creating the problem the committee was formed to prevent because of deliberations generating publicity about the general method.

  • gsgs 21 December 2011, 12:31 am

    most military research is secret

  • gsgs 21 December 2011, 12:37 am

    it depends on the details, which we don’t know.
    And on the cost to repeat the experiment.
    Well, it took them almost 10 years
    How much would publishing the details reduce the cost
    to repeat it, to create the strain ?

  • B M 21 December 2011, 1:20 am

    How would a deadly, and easily transmissible, flu even be useful as a terrorist weapon? If you cannot reasonably control who is targeted then surely you have no achievable political goal.

    It sounds like it’s been lumped under the ‘terrorism’ banner because that’s the narrative of the moment for anything potentially threatening.

  • gsgs 21 December 2011, 4:25 am

    they can threaten to use it to pressure governments
    for money or to withdraw troups or free jailed friends.
    We saw it before. If they are desperate enough, they may risk the pandemic.
    They may even hope that the epidemic would be contained.
    But we won’t know it in advance and the threat would still be
    too terrible to even risk it.

  • Connor Bamford 21 December 2011, 5:08 am

    Thanks Vincent, just found on Amazon.

    @c16e6c864039e5ba5513c30b40da11a5:disqus Yeah sure, but that was never going to be public knowledge so I wouldn’t count that.What we have here is something very different from what we’ve seen in ‘conventional’ biosciences.

  • Stanley Maloy 21 December 2011, 11:07 am

    Check out the December 21 NPR story on this decision.

  • Coverend 21 December 2011, 12:02 pm

    But consider how terrorists have acted in the past.  Do they target specific people, or are they more interested in creating as much fear as possible? Have they avoided killing women and children? What about suicide bombers or the airline hijackers? Were they trying to avoid getting killed themselves? How would a deadly and highly transmissible virus be any different?

  • Ed 21 December 2011, 12:12 pm

    We have known about this virus since 1997. The first of many papers that showed a successful protection by a vaccine candidate against HPAI H5N1 in a mammlian system appeared less than a year later due to concerns about the pandemic potential of the virus: Protection against a lethal avian influenza A virus in a mammalian system. Riberdy JM, Flynn KJ, Stech J, Webster RG, Altman JD, Doherty PC. J Virol. 1999 Feb;73(2):1453-9.
    The same year saw successful vaccine candidates in ferrets published.
    My point is, even if the virus the Fouchier and Kawaoka groups created were a threat we already have many vaccine candidates for it that could be put into production. I wonder if there is a expt. in either paper showing protection by such a vaccine.

    “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”

  • Michele Bialecki 21 December 2011, 12:20 pm

    The news media have been sensationalizing the story and making scientific research look bad.  A comment in the Washington Post last night regarding their article on the decision  suggested that the researchers be killed. Apparently we are now villains.

  • Lionel Berthoux 21 December 2011, 2:36 pm

    This security council is blinding itself to the reality that these experiments are not so cutting-edge that any gifted molecular virologist would be able to get to the same point within a few years or maybe even months if they really want to.

  • Coverend 21 December 2011, 4:29 pm

    So where does this type of “censorship” end? What about the discovery of mutations that render influenza viruses resistant to antiviral drugs? any virulence/attenuating factor could be a “target for bioweapons”…

  • Anonymous 21 December 2011, 9:13 pm

    This restriction is disturbing to a lay person because I agree it’s better to have open discourse in the research community.  In this case the crux seems to center on ferrets being infected and the impression that an infected animal can readily transmit the infection to humans.  After all that’s what happens with rabies, right?  Lots of discussion about why this isn’t so with H5N1 would really be helpful.  All I can argue, and perhaps any politician or lay-official can argue, is that so far very few human cases have resulted this way through contact with birds (ducks only?) and in those cases the contact was extreme, such as sleeping nightly in the same cage as the ducks.  Are there some good analogies for this sort of thing, like one I heard that during WWII 10,000 bullets were fired for each person killed.   Research done on every bacteria and virus-borne disease entails risk and periodically a researcher dies in the process.  Would a presentation of some of these efforts help put the current research in a more reasonable light?  Let’s agree that there’s some risk.  That’s true with everything: look at coal mining with cave-ins and black lung!  Is the risk with this H5N1 work reasonable and in line with other research — on polio, on yellow fever, on anthrax, on smallpox, influenzas….  That’s my 2-bits worth.

  • ElDean 22 December 2011, 5:57 am

     I am sorry, to take you a step out of the track for the discussion, I just didn’t like the smell of pointing out that it is always Muslims being the terrorists (since if you don’t know Fatwa is an islamic term). I would like to point out that it was – as far as I know – only Non-muslims who have ever used biological weapons in reality (check WW history) (ah. in addition to Nuclear weapons also!). It seems for me offending for muslims, and if I were you I would more generalize the words. thanks

  • Mike Imperiale 22 December 2011, 2:29 pm

    As a virologist and a member of NSABB, I would like to make a few comments mainly to clear up some misconceptions that have crept into this discussion.

    First and foremost, there is absolutely no doubt that this research had a very legitimate goal, to understand how the avian H5N1 virus might become transmissible among humans, using the well-established ferret model system as a surrogate. This has very important implications for the public health community worldwide. One should remember that until this work, it was unclear whether H5N1 even could be transmitted among mammals. These papers show that it can happen.

    Second, this is not the same as the debate over the reconstruction of the 1918 virus in 2005. That virus was much less lethal in man. Moreover, there is some immunity against H1N1 in the population and medical care has improved greatly since 1918. Despite these advances, however, the current H5N1 mortality rate is in the 60% range. Might that rate drop and the virus become less virulent as a whole  if it does indeed begin to exhibit human-to-human spread? It’s possible, but we have no way of knowing that. I, for one, am not anxious to see that human experiment take place.

    Third, I object to the use of the term “censorship.” This is not censorship, but rather our responsibility as a scientific community. If H5N1 were to start spreading from human to human, be it by natural or man-made means, we are not prepared to handle it. There is NO pre-existing immunity and a reliable vaccine is not available, nor are the quantities of antiviral drugs that would be required to deal with a pandemic that would take only a few short months to establish itself. In this context, I agree that it is key that people with a legitimate need to know this information must be given access to it. And this is not limited to the influenza virology community. I know that both Nature and Science are insisting that this be the case if they are to agree to witholding some of the work from publication.

    Finally, let me comment on the argument that terrorists would not use an agent whose spread cannot be controlled. One needs to look no further than suicide bombers to know that many modern day terrorists do not care about collateral damage or even their own lives. Moreover, it is well known, in public sources, that terrorist groups have expressed an interest in developing biological weapons.

    At the end if the day, the possible consequences of this virus getting loose have to be balanced against the benefits of publication the papers “as is.” Given the current state of the science, public health preparedness, and the world, my colleagues at NSABB and I believed that the prudent approach was to use caution. We (the scientific community) owe it to the public, who both fund our work and benefit from it, to demonstrate that we are acting responsibly. I would hasten to add that, if these papers are published with no editing and there is a terrorist event with this virus, one can only imagine what the response of the U.S. Congress and other international legislatures might be in terms of putting Draconian restrictions on research. 

  • profvrr 22 December 2011, 2:50 pm

    Thank you for providing this information, Mike. It does help to clarify the thinking of the NSABB members, which the official releases from the NIH fails to do.

  • Nissin 22 December 2011, 3:54 pm

    Now we know that the ferret-passaged influenza H5N1
    virus can be transmitted to people and cause a deadly disease. The detailed of
    how to do it has been removed from the publication, but the idea has been seed
    and any one can redo the experiment and select for a very virulent strain of
    H5N1. So, the discussion should be, what should we do to protect the population
    from a H5N1 man-made or nature-made?

  • Alan Dove 22 December 2011, 4:53 pm

    This definitely explains the NSABB thinking better than the official news releases, and I’m glad at least some members of the group are willing to speak to the real questions here. However, I’d still be interested to know why the NSABB members think that blocking publication of the specific point mutations will even present a speed bump for the bioterrorists you’re hypothesizing. Indeed, it would be technically much simpler (as well as cheaper and probably more reliable) to simply repeat Fouchier et al.’s protocol. All one would need is a good supply of ferrets and an isolate of wild-type H5N1, neither of which is hard to obtain. As Brian Hanley pointed out above, terrorist groups are also unencumbered by the usual ethical protocols, so they could do the experiment in human volunteers instead for even greater reliability.

    As for the censorship, it seems pretty clear: NSABB, while it doesn’t have any actual legal authority, is unquestionably trying to exercise prior restraint over the release of scientific information. In this case, it looks as if you’ll succeed. If that’s not censorship, I don’t know what to call it.

    I realize that the NSABB members have by definition signed onto the whole biodefense industry agenda and bought into its standard Hollywood-style scenario: that terrorists are actually trying to deploy biological weapons, and that when they succeed those weapons will be horrifically deadly. But a lot of us are still pretty skeptical of that whole thesis. Terrorist groups say a lot of things, and their “expressed interest” in bioweapons could well be propaganda intended to produce exactly the fearmongering and overreaction we’ve seen around this story. Your final sentence simply extends that fearmongering to the scientists.

    The history of bioweapons deployment by nonstate actors remains a litany of failures. If terrorists are indeed trying to engineer point mutations in H5N1 flu, they’re diverting a lot of resources away from building proven weapons that are far deadlier.

  • profvrr 22 December 2011, 5:05 pm

    Very well put Brian. I especially agree with the notion that nature is the ultimate bioterrorist, and that we should not interfere with medicine and diagnostics.

  • Mike Imperiale 22 December 2011, 6:00 pm

    Sorry, Alan, but you are so wrong about NSABB members signing onto anything. Many of us are scientists and we have spent the past six years staunchly defending the academic research enterprise in this country and worldwide. Please refrain from accusations that have no basis in fact.

  • Ron A.M. Fouchier 22 December 2011, 6:50 pm

    Many thanks to Vincent and Mike for this blog.

    There is a very practical problem with the NSABB advice: how to share the details of the studies with the scientists and public health specialists with a “legitimate need to know”? The NSABB advice is (perhaps somewhat) understandable, but is at the same time impractical;  The problem is that the critical information can not be shared with dozens of countries (hence 100s of scientists) while keeping the details “classified”. As soon a you share confidential info with more than 10 people, the info will be on the street. If NSABB agrees that the details of the info need to be shared with people with a “legitimate need to know”, the only way to do that responsibly is via the usual channels of scientific communication; publication in respected journals.

    In Dual Use research, one needs to way “benefits” and “risks” of research. For the H5N1 studies, the benefits are clear; trying to prevent a severe pandemic or reduce the impact if prevention fails. The risks? Negligible. Bioterrorists and rogue countries have easier opportunities than to recreate these H5N1 viruses; Mother Nature is the biggest bioterrorist, and the weapons are in the field for grabs for everyone.

    PS. At the time of the NSABB advice on 1918 Spanish flu, the NSABB had no knowledge of herd immunity against H1N1. That information came from the 2009 pandemic. In 2005, the NSABB had to assume that 1918 Spanish flu virus was a real killer also.

  • gsgs 23 December 2011, 6:02 am

     > The risks? Negligible. Bioterrorists and rogue countries have easier

     > opportunities than to recreate these H5N1 viruses; Mother Nature
     > is the biggest
    bioterrorist, and the weapons are in the field for grabs
     >  for everyone.

    wow, the risks from applying your method are even negligible
    to the risk from other methods to create such a transmissable H5N1-virus ?
    We are doomed

  • Mike Imperiale 23 December 2011, 11:46 am

    Ron, thanks for weighing in here with very important points. I don’t know how the US government, in cooperation with the rest of the world, is going to deal with the very important practical issue that your raise. Similarly, your point about what an actor (state or non-state) might choose as a bioweapon is spot on and has been the topic of much discussion by NSABB (and others) over the years. No matter what we do, we are not going to be able to stop a determined actor: the best we can do is try to make it as difficult as possible for them to act until we have better countermeasures.

    Thanks also for pointing out the H1N1 immunity issue: you are correct about the state of our knowledge at that time.

  • Charles Peden 23 December 2011, 11:51 am

    Releasing full details of the studies is not unethical regardless of how it can be used by unethical people.  Withholding vital details to repeat and verify an experiment is not scientific.  Even if the information was used unethically, cowardice towards unethical people would not be a behavior worth preserving, anyway.

  • Alan Dove 23 December 2011, 12:12 pm

    Mike, I apologize if I misinterpreted you. But please re-read your comment above – which was the basis for my response – and try to understand how your statements sound to someone outside your group.

  • César Sánchez 24 December 2011, 11:25 am

    This is the link to the NPR story:

    U.S. Says Details Of Flu Experiments Should Stay Secret


  • Matt 24 December 2011, 4:22 pm

    So 2 questions has need to be discussed as well. The first has already been brought up with no answers yet. How do you share the full data with scientists who want to work on this problem and what are the criteria for them working in it? But the next step would be to publish a new result based on that classified data by another group. New antibodies that target novel mutations, or novel interferon antagonists in the passages flu. How do you publish on this in the future and still keep it secret?

    The second question is whether these 2 viruses have the same set of mutations that make them transmissible in ferrets or are they different mutation sets that get to the same result? Without knowing the mutations then there is no way to know between the 2 groups whether they are the same orations types or not. In SARS CoV for example there are different but overlapping mutation sets between 3 different mouse adapted viruses that cause the same lethality and pathology. It would be interesting to know how this compares to Influenza. And I don’t think we will get that information from these publications.


  • gsgs 24 December 2011, 7:17 pm

    a forum would be better since it’s organized in threads,subforums,
    you can include pictures and tables  and it’s searchable. Start one !

  • gsgs 24 December 2011, 7:29 pm

     restrict/concentrate funding for this special issue to certain groups
    (Fouchier should like that ?!)

    Antivirals that target special mutations ? Are there those (I haven’t seen
    any), is it possible,likely,important ?

    Apparently we cannot overcome the resistance mutations.

    The 2nd question could be answered without increasing terrorism risks

    Well, if they were different, that should make it even easier…

  • JJackson 30 December 2011, 6:52 pm

    The vastly increased threat, over the last few years since 9/11, is not due to VNSA’s but the mushrooming of BSLs, of all levels, and the research taking place in them. No terrorist is going to waste time developing a bioweapon by genetic manipulation or passaging if one can be aquired off the shelf. They are not the problem mistakes are.

    I do not know how H1N1 magically reappeared in 1977 with a suspiciously unchanged HA sequence after a 20 year absence from the sequence record but I suspect a lab escape. More recently Baxters sent vials of BSL3 only HP H5N1 to a number of european labs without any BSL facilities mislabeled as seasonal flu. The mistake was only discovered when the first lab to inject their ferrets suffered 100% mortality in a few days.

    For the record I also think the NSABB proposal is a request to self censor and does more harm than good. If you want to make life harder for the would be bioterrorist look for depression in those with access to dangerous pathogens, tighten up lab security and the ethics commitees. While terrorists may be happy to kill large numbers of those they view as enemies, and themselves for the cause, I have seen no evidence they would use a weapon that killed friend and foe indescriminantly.

  • Wladimir J. Alonso 10 January 2012, 11:12 am

    I accept as a scientist and am relieved as a citizen that the putative impact of scientific novelties is controlled by society as a whole (this is the case in democratically elected governments), and not only by scientists themselves. If this means that now and then censorship is imposed on the description of scientific novelties that might be of great harm, so be it.

    And, by any scale, here the balance of danger X freedom of publishing scientific results is clearly defined: among all man-made provoked catastrophes, perhaps only a nuclear war is in the same level of global threat as this pandemic H5N1 kind of virus. Even if this engineered strain were a remote threat (and it is not),  it indeed “constitutes a legitimate interest” for society to take precautionary measures.

    Therefore I am glad that NSABB is taking this matter seriously (and among one of the measures that seems to me reasonable is suspending the spread of more information about this newly discovered technical possibility to prevent it to fall in wrong hands too quickly).