The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has published “Adaptations of Avian Flu Virus Are a Cause for Concern”, an explanation of their recommendations with respect to influenza H5N1 research (versions at Science and Nature). It starts with the statement that advances in technology now allow manipulation of microbial genomes in ways that could be misused, leading to global harm. They define dual-use research as “research that could be used for good or bad purposes”.
The authors begin their discussion of influenza H5N1 with the usual incorrect statement about the lethality of the virus:
Highly pathogenic avian influenza A/H5N1 infection of humans has been a serious public health concern since its identification in 1997 in Asia. This virus rarely infects humans, but when it does, it causes severe disease with case fatality rates of 59%.
The reference for this information is a WHO summary of confirmed human cases of H5N1. Both WHO and NSABB ignore the serological evidence for many mild or inapparent H5N1 infections. Omitting these data leads to an overestimation of the virulence of the virus, which has apparently played a large role in the NSABB’s decision.
Next, they engage in extensive speculation:
If influenza A/H5N1 virus acquired the capacity for human-to-human spread and retained its current virulence, we could face an epidemic of substantial proportions.
The virus has been circulating since the 1990s and has not acquired the capacity for human to human spread. This doesn’t mean it never will, but the possibility seems remote. The statement ‘retaining its current virulence’ of course refers to the erroneous 59% case fatality rate. What if the fatality rate is 0.1%, like seasonal influenza?
In discussing influenza H5N1 transmission in ferrets, the NSABB notes the value of the research:
The research teams that performed this work did so in a well-intended effort to discover evolutionary routes by which avian influenza A/H5N1 viruses might adapt to humans. Such knowledge may be valuable for improving the public health response to a looming natural threat.
Next the NSABB describes their consideration of risk assessment of the H5N1 ferret studies. Their conclusion:
We found the potential risk of public harm to be of unusually high magnitude. Because the NSABB found that there was significant potential for harm in fully publishing these results and that the harm exceeded the benefits of publication, we therefore recommended that the work not be fully communicated in an open forum.
But there is no description of how they reached this conclusion. What data did they consider when making this decision? What were the benefits and the potential harms, and how did they weigh them? Apparently we must take the word of the panel that they reached the right decision, even though we cannot know what information they used. To convey their decision in this manner is unacceptable and sends the message that the committee did not consider specific data during their deliberations.
The life sciences have reached a crossroads. The direction we choose and the process by which we arrive at this decision must be undertaken as a community and not relegated to small segments of government, the scientific community, or society.
This is precisely why the decision to redact publication should not have been made by the NSABB or any small group of individuals. I agree that this is an ‘Asilomar moment’, a time when scientists must meet to decide what types of microbial research should be regulated. This should be a discussion among a large group of scientists, not bioterrorism policy analysts.
I understand the need to regulate certain types of experiments on microbes. But when I balance the benefits and risks of the H5N1 ferret transmission experiments, it does not make sense to stamp them as dual use and restrict publication of the results. Let publication proceed and then decide how to decide on how to move forward.