NSABB reverses decision on publication of H5N1 results

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.