Bioterrorism and bird flu

In December 2011, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the journals Science and Nature to redact details of a study about an easily transmitted form of the H5N1 virus for fear it could be misused by bioterrorists. Maryam Omidi considers whether the censorship request was valid.

The case

In December 2011, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the journals Science and Nature to redact details of a study about an easily transmitted form of the H5N1 virus, or bird flu as it is commonly known, for fear it could be misused by bioterrorists. The strain, created by scientists in the US and the Netherlands, is transmissible between ferrets, usually a sign that a virus may be communicable between humans. The impact of the fatal virus has been minimal to date because of its inability to jump from human to human.

As of January 2012, the journals were resisting the request to expunge information about the research on the grounds that scientists need access to the data to be able to prepare for the possibility of a mutation in nature. Science editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts is in negotiation with the government to set up a system that would allow international researchers access to the information following a stringent vetting procedure. He has said that knowledge about the virus “could well be essential for speeding the development of new treatments to combat this lethal form of influenza”.

Author opinion

While the potential for the strain to pass between humans appears to be a very real threat, the risk of terrorist action is less clear. Given the US government’s bombastic rhetoric on terrorism in recent years, it is difficult to discern whether there is a hidden political agenda or if the concern is genuine, and rooted in reality. How conceivable is it that terrorists will be able to create this strain of the H5N1 virus? The national security card has been played too often by the US authorities for it to carry the potency it should. While the compromise being pursued by Alberts seems to be a sensible solution, it still raises questions. How easy will it be to keep this sensitive information under wraps? Will submitting to the request have a chilling effect on academic freedom? And is the request the thin end of the wedge?

- Maryam Omidi

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Comments (1)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Scientists have now temporarily stopped research on deadly bird flu strain: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-16662346

    They state their position in a letter in Science:
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/481443a.html

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