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US agency seeks to censor influenza research amid biosecurity fears

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d8333 (Published 29 December 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d8333
  1. Bob Roehr
  1. 1Washington, DC

A little known US government panel has asked two leading scientific journals to censor publication of research on the human to human transmission of the H5N1 avian influenza virus.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (http://oba.od.nih.gov/biosecurity/about_nsabb.html) made the request to the authors of the studies and to the journals Science and Nature after reviewing the papers before publication. It recommended “that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”

It also urged “that language be added to the manuscripts to explain better the goals and potential public health benefits of the research, and to detail the extensive safety and security measures taken to protect laboratory workers and the public.” (www.nih.gov/news/health/dec2011/od-20.htm)

This is the first time the board has made such a request since its creation in 2001 after a bioterrorism incident where anthrax powder was put in the mail, killing five people and harming 17 others. The board is composed of up to 25 voting members drawn largely from academia and ex officio non-voting members from US government agencies.

Its recommendations are voluntary and it has no authority to impose them or penalise individuals and organisations that do not follow them.

The research in question deals with the H5N1 strain of influenza, which is particularly deadly to birds. Humans can become infected through close contact with sick birds, and the human mortality rate is high; but that strain of the virus does not transmit easily between humans.

The research sought to better understand what genetic mutations have to take place in order for H5N1 to become readily transmitted between humans, and hence a risk for creating a pandemic situation. That information is useful for epidemiological monitoring for emerging threats and for identifying potential viral targets for vaccination and therapeutic interventions.

The US National Institutes of Health funded the research as part of the national bio-defence programme. It was carried out at Erasmus University in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin in the US.

Science editor in chief Bruce Alberts said the journal was considering the request to delete sections of the paper. He said: “Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the US 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.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d8333