Journal May Blue-Pencil Bird-Flu Study
December 21, 2011 by UPI - United Press International, Inc.
WASHINGTON, Dec. 21 (UPI) — An academic journal may withhold key parts of a bird-flu study after Washington said terrorists could use the facts to create deadly epidemics, the editor said.
But the editor of another journal planning to publish a similar study was not so quick to acquiesce.
Bruce Alberts, editor of Science, the academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told The New York Times his publication would probably withhold some information — but only if the government creates a system to provide the missing information to legitimate scientists worldwide who need it.
“I wouldn’t call this censorship,” he told the newspaper. “It’s the scientific community trying to step out front and be responsible.”
Philip Campbell, editor of the interdisciplinary scientific journal Nature, spoke of concerns about withholding potentially important public health information.
He said his editors were in “active consultation” with the U.S. government advisory board that asked Nature and Science to withhold biomedical-experimental details.
“It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by [the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity], appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled.”
The board — overseen by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which funded the flu research — said study conclusions could be published but not “experimental details and mutation data that would enable replication of the experiments.”
The panel did not say what it would do if the journals do not censor their articles.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said a government order banning publication of unpublished material — an action known as prior restraint — is unconstitutional, except in extremely limited circumstances such as national security issues.
In two experiments, conducted in the United States and the Netherlands, scientists created a highly transmissible form of a deadly flu virus that does not normally spread from person to person.
The research was conducted on ferrets, considered a good model for predicting how flu viruses will behave in people, the researchers said.
The virus, known as H5N1, rarely infects people but has an extraordinarily high death rate when it does.
Since 2003, 510 people have contracted it and 303 people have died, the World Health Organization said last year. The strain was first detected in 1997.
The Dutch researchers presented their work at a virology conference in Malta in September, saying the genetically altered strain was as contagious and infectious as the human seasonal flu, making it the most vicious and dangerous flu strain to date.
The idea behind the research was to find out what genetic changes might make the virus easier to transmit, Times reported. That way, scientists could know how to identify warning signs the virus was developing pandemic potential.
It was also hoped that the research might lead to better treatments, the Times said.
The researchers — one at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and the other at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — said they had reservations about the government panel’s recommendations, but would abide by them.