Journals asked to censor controversial bird flu studies
The U.S. government is asking scientific journals not to publish the details of studies done on the bird flu virus because of fears the information could be used by bioterrorists.
Both a Dutch and an American research team have managed to figure out ways to mutate the avian flu virus so that it can become highly transmissible among humans.
The engineered viruses have not been released; they remain locked away in high-security labs. But the researchers wanted to deliberately create a deadly superbug to better understand what changes in the virus would need to happen in nature for it to become dangerous among humans.
The researchers would like to publish what they discovered and have submitted their work to the journals Science and Nature.
The U.S. government, though, wants the journals to publish only brief reports of the work. They're worried that nefarious teams might want to borrow the ideas to create deadly viruses of their own for bioterrorism.
The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has asked the journals to publish scaled down versions of the studies. But both journals say that smacks of censorship. They point out that there are researchers in the medical community with a legitimate need to see the full work.
"It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers," Dr. Philip Campbell, editor in chief of Nature, said in a statement.
The request from the U.S. government to publish redacted versions of the research is only that: a request. The government does not have the power to block the publications.
But the journals said in separate statements this week they are working with the biosecurity advisory board to come up with a compromise. One idea would be for the journals to limit what they reveal, and then have the U.S. government create a system in which those parties who need to see the full details of the research could be granted access to the material.
"We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled," said Campbell.
But Dr. Bruce Alberts, editor in chief of Science, said the negotiations have already dragged on for a long time and a plan for granting full access has yet to be devised.
"Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety," he said in his statement.
The bird flu virus is considered dangerous becuase it has such a high death rate in humans. Of the 600 people who have to date been infected with the H5N1 virus, 60 per cent have died.
But while humans can catch the virus from birds, H5N1 currently does not transmit easily from person-to-person.
Dr. Fouchier's team, as well as a team led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a University of Wisconsin-Madison, have found that it would take only five mutations to the virus form that is currently circulating around the world to turn it into an easily transmissible form.
The team conducted their research on ferrets, whose respiratory systems are similar to humans and who are considered the best predictor of how flu viruses might behave in humans.
The team introduced five mutations into the virus and found it then could easily bind to the ferrets' nasal and tracheal cells. All of the mutations have been found in H5N1 viruses in the wild; they just haven't all come together at once yet – and may never do so.
But as part of their experiment, the researchers tested how transmissible their new engineered virus would be by inoculating a ferret with it. After it got sick, they exposed a second ferret to infectious material from the first one. They then repeated this a few more times, essentially forcing the virus to adapt.
After 10 virus generations, the virus "learned" how to became airborne and infect healthy ferrets who were simply housed next to a sick one.
Fouchier says their research means that it's indeed possible that the H5N1 virus could change into a virus that can spread among humans "more easily than previously thought," he said in a statement earlier this month.
Infectious diseases expert Dr. Neil Rau points out that because the research was conducted on ferrets, it's not even clear that the virus can transmit easily among humans.
"There's no proof that it's transmissible between person to person," he told CTV's Canada AM Thursday.
Rau doesn't believe it's likely that just anyone could take the clues given in this research and then begin creating a superbug bioweapon.
"You need a Level 4 lab with personal protective equipment before you even handle it. So no amateur is going to do this. You're going to need a concerted group of evil people working as a team to play around with this virus," Rau says.
Even if that could happen, transporting and disseminating it wouldn't be easy either without killing all those involved.
For those reasons and more, Rau believes the move to suppress this research is an overreaction.
"I think we've already sacrificed a lot of civil liberties and freedoms in this war on terror and I think this is another freedom on the altar of sacrifice with them saying suppress this information in return for preventing what is really a low risk," he said.
Source: CTV News