Moderator: W. Ian Lipkin (Columbia University)
Panelists: Arturo Casadevall (Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Member, NSABB), Laurie Garrett (Council on Foreign Relations), Barbara R. Jasny (Science), Véronique Kiermer (Nature Publishing Group), Michael T. Osterholm (University of Minnesota; Member, NSABB), Peter Palese (Mount Sinai School of Medicine), Vincent Racaniello (Columbia University), and Alan S. Rudolph (Defense Threat Reduction Agency)Presented by the Emerging Infectious Diseases & Microbiology Discussion Group of the New York Academy of Sciences
Reported by Anubhav Kaul | Posted February 24, 2012
In December of 2011 the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) took the unprecedented step of requesting that the top-tier journals Science and Nature remove certain methodological details and the identity of the key mutations from the results to be published of two H5N1 avian influenza virus studies. The Board took an interest in these particular studies, one conducted by Ron Fouchier's group at Rotterdam's Erasmus Medical Centre and the other by Yoshihiro Kawaoka's at the University of Wisconsin, because of the possibility that their methods could be used by would-be-bioterrorists to engineer a version of H5N1 capable of human-to-human transmission. Research that could potentially be used for both malicious and beneficial purposes is classified as "dual use" research, and, in the U.S., weighing the threat to national security or public health against the potential benefit of the research is the purview of the NSABB, a group convened by the Office of Biotechnology Activities of the National Institutes of Health. The two papers describe two genetically engineered mutant strains of the avian influenza virus H5N1. The described mutant viruses are easily capable of transmission in a ferret model, thus raising the threat of feasible and dangerous air-borne transmission in humans, some argue. Though human-to-human transmission is not yet reported, there is a high fatality rate for individuals hospitalized after acquiring the naturally occurring H5N1 virus directly from infected birds.
Nature and Science have agreed to consider the NSABB recommendation to redact the papers by omitting certain methodological details and specifics about producing the mutant H5N1 viruses if a mechanism can be put in place for distributing the unredacted versions to those who need the results for public-health intervention or for pursuing the science under safe conditions. On February 2, 2012 the New York Academy of Sciences convened key stakeholders, including representatives from Science, Nature, and the NSABB, along with key scientists in the field, for a lively and timely discussion of Dual Use Research: H5N1 Influenza Virus and Beyond.
Since the NSABB intervened, the conflict of academic freedom in influenza research versus the risk of an accidental or intentional outbreak has been thoroughly debated in the scientific community and among public health, biosecurity, and government representatives. In addition, the controversy has provoked discussion of the likelihood of the results' misuse, of the value of the unfettered exchange of scientific information, and of the probability of the virus's developing the capacity for human-to-human transmission even without the aid of artificial genetic manipulation. In response to the controversy, 39 flu researchers agreed to a voluntary 60-day moratorium on all related research, beginning in January. This period of time will hopefully allow stakeholders to reach a consensus over the current proceedings and to carve out the preliminaries of polices that will resolve similar disagreements in the future. The pause in research also gave 22 influenza and public health experts from around the world, meeting in Geneva on February 16 – 17 at the World Health Organization headquarters, an opportunity to discuss the studies and to make recommendations concerning dissemination of data and materials to researchers around the world.
Editors' note: Since this meeting, a majority of the experts meeting at the World Health Organization has recommended that the two papers should be published in full, though the timeline of publication is delayed while relevant parties determine the details of the process.
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Panel discussion featuring:
Moderator: W. Ian Lipkin, MD (Columbia University)
Panelists: Arturo Casadevall, MD, PhD (Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Member, NSABB)
Laurie Garrett, PhD (Council on Foreign Relations)
Barbara R. Jasny, PhD (Science)
Véronique Kiermer, PhD (Nature Publishing Group)
Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH (University of Minnesota; Member, NSABB)
Peter Palese, PhD (Mount Sinai School of Medicine)
Vincent Racaniello, PhD (Columbia University)
Alan S. Rudolph, PhD (Defense Threat Reduction Agency)