NSABB reverses decision on publication of H5N1 results

30 March 2012

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has re-examined two manuscripts on the transmissibility of influenza H5N1 virus in ferrets:

After careful deliberation, the NSABB unanimously recommended that this revised Kawaoka manuscript should be communicated in full. The NSABB also recommended, in a 12 to 6 decision, the communication of the data, methods, and conclusions presented in this revised Fouchier manuscript.

The NSABB reached this decision using ‘analytical tools that it previously developed for considering the risks and benefits associated with the communication of dual use research of concern.

Apparently information communicated in revised versions of the Fouchier and Kawaoka manuscripts changed the Board’s risk/benefit calculation:

The data described in the revised manuscripts do not appear to provide information that would immediately enable misuse of the research in ways that would endanger public health or national security.

New evidence has emerged that underscores the fact that understanding specific mutations may improve international surveillance and public health and safety.

This decision (full text here) is welcome, although I wonder how the manuscripts have been ‘revised’ – were data added or removed? Furthermore, why does the NSABB now feel that the results do not endanger public health, and can be used to improve international surveillance? These arguments have been made previously but the NSABB discounted them.

I look forward to publication of the Fouchier and Kawaoka findings and a comprehensive discussion of how they influence influenza H5N1 transmission in ferrets.

Update: According to the New York Times, the chair of the NSABB said “the new decision was not a reversal, because the revised manuscripts were so different from the originals. Had these versions been presented originally, the board would not have recommended withholding any details”.

Did the authors remove data from the manuscripts, or just clarify them?

Update 2. According to Kawaoka, quoted in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, the revisions of his manuscript “provided a more in-depth explanation of the significance of the findings to public health and a description of the laboratory biosafety and biosecurity.” His paper, he added, would contain descriptions of all the mutations that enhanced transmission of the virus, the very data that initially concerned the board.” Furthermore, Ron Fouchier wrote to me in an email that “the manuscripts will indeed be published in full.” All this is very good news.

  • MJ

    I think this is scary. What about bio-terrorism?

  • DuoNoxSol

    The whole point of this committee is to assess dual use potential of research, (or so I understand it. They may have some other responsibilities, as well.) After some time of discussion among the scientific community, they’ve reversed their original decision. Many members of the scientific community support the publishing of the research, and it is my opinion that science should be in the hands of scientists.

    Also, to quote above,”The data described in the revised manuscripts do not appear to provide information that would immediately enable misuse of the research in ways that would endanger public health or national security.”

  • Neeltje

    Great news. Can’t wait to read the papers.

  • EllenHunt

    So it goes. 

  • Paul12

    Failure to publish the H5 HA mutations that led to ferret-ferret transmission is a deadly disservice to Humanity. This will diminish the chances of identifying these mutations in natural  occurring viruses since the majority of the scientific community will not be aware.

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  • http://twitter.com/cggbamford Connor Bamford

    Excellent decision, hope fully revised doesn’t mean some sort of self-editing of important info.

  • drosha

    If Kawaoka’s paper would indeed contain the original mutations, how is adding more clarification removes the risk according to NSABB? Do they think that terrorists (that they are so afraid of developing a viral weapon) will stop after seeing  some clarification sentences. This shows how ridiculous the original decision was and in my mind destroys the credibility of NSABB.

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  • Jetchison

    Vincent,

    Don’t you think this is all a bit of a tempest in a teapot? What exactly is an influenza virus mutant anyway?  A single clincally infectious dose of influenza contains a collage of sequences with hundreds to thousands of base changes within the population genome. In reality, almost every single copy of the influenza genome is a statistical “mutant”; every single infectious dose of influenza virus is a collage of “mutants.”  Any intentional variations introduced into the “initiating genome sequence”, will likely be washed away by the tide repeated rounds of replication. Influenza virus is a quasispecies – a collage of viable (and defective) sequences. What is a mutant in a quasispecies population?

  • Magpie

    “Any intentional variations introduced into the “initiating genome
    sequence”, will likely be washed away by the tide repeated rounds of
    replication. ”

    Unless the mutations lead to a significantly more-fit version of the virus, which is the concern. Mutations that confer greater fitness will tend to be preserved until either some better mutation comes along or, especially in the case of a virus, until the mutation ceases to make it more fit and some other mutation will do just as well. Influenza makes a lot of dodgy copies, true, but a good version will persist quite happily as long as it remains good.

    Vincent, I’m especially keen to see anything from Ron Fouchier regarding the early reporting of his results. I have a pretty dismal view of the general media’s ability to accurately report science, but even so, some highly respected (respected by me, at least) journalists reported what seemed pretty clear statements from Fouchier that seem… well, wildly at odds with what we’re hearing now.

    Is there anything out there that explains the disparity? Until it’s cleared up, and unless it’s dealt with pretty sharpish, this whole episode is going to be food for conspiracy theorists.

  • Jetchison

    “Unless the mutations lead to a significantly more-fit version of the virus, which is the concern. Mutations that confer greater fitness will tend to be preserved until either some better mutation comes along or, especially in the case of a virus, until the mutation ceases to make it more fit and some other mutation will do just as well. Influenza makes a lot of dodgy copies, true, but a good version will persist quite happily as long as it remains good.”

    So, what constitutes an influenza virus mutant?

    What is “survival of the fittest” in a quasi-species population?

    Mother Influenza H5N1 has no doubt introduced that particular base change (“mutation”) a gazillion times already and it hasn’t changed the dynamics of H5N1 tropism. Yet, some artificially introduced base change will be better? I doubt it.

  • Matt Frieman

    All of this is good news. I don’t want to add too many more questions but 1 keeps bothering me. Didn’t Fouchier and Kawaoka talk to the NSABB when the review was the done the first time? Didn’t they ask them Why they were doing this work? Of course they did. How can the NSABB look everyone in the face and claim that extra explanations in the papers now make them publishable with no change in the data? Is it just removing the hype that was written in the first time? Not sure what it means for the NSABBs future. But just glad that they are being published so we can really read them instead of just guessing.

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    I’m not sure we will ever know why the NSABB reversed its decision. I very much doubt it was in response to pressure from the scientific community. As far as I understand the science in the revised papers is the same as in the original. Unless we see the original papers (not likely), or speak with an NSABB member (more unlikely) we will probably not understand the reversal. I welcome the publication of the Fouchier and Kawaoka papers, but the entire episode seems counterproductive. To say that this discussion has been useful for understanding dual-use research is, in my opinion, an excuse.

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