US board gives green light to publication of bird flu studies it previously blocked

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 03 April 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2512
  1. Ingrid Torjesen
  1. 1London

A US government panel has given two journals the go ahead to publish research on transmission of avian flu. It had previously recommended that the journals withhold publication of the studies for fear that public health would be endangered if they fell into the wrong hands (BMJ 2011;343:d8333, doi:10.1136/bmj.d8333).

In December 2011 the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which provides recommendations on research publication at the request of the US government, asked the journals Science and Nature to withhold publication of “methodological and other details” of two studies relating to the potential for human to human transmission of the H5N1 virus as an aerosol because “that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm” (so called dual use research of concern).

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.”

The authors redrafted the manuscripts, and last week the board agreed that the two papers could be published ( The decision to recommend publication of the manuscript by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin in Nature was unanimous, and the vote was 12 to 6 in favour of publishing the paper by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam, in Science.

Paul Keim, the board’s acting chairman, told a press conference on Monday 2 April that the board had changed its mind on publishing the research for several reasons, including that the redrafted versions were more extensive and stated the potential benefits of the research to public health.

Fouchier said that his paper had been presented as pure scientific research but that Science had agreed to give it more space to enable the public health benefits to be explained.

He believes that there was “a misconception” about the potential lethality of the research, which was undertaken in ferrets. “Our first version of the paper was simply about aerosol transmission; it wasn’t about virulence and lethality. It was a very scientific paper about aerosol transmission. The whole lethality of the virus we were not incredibly interested in initially, but because of all the controversy and the discussion we knew we had to spell it out.”

He said, “Our virus does not kill ferrets when they are infected by aerosol.”

The board was also made privy to additional confidential information on the risks and benefits of publishing the H5N1 research, the details of which are not likely to be made public. And last week the US government also published a new “policy for oversight of life sciences dual use research of concern,” which Keim said had made “a big difference” (

Keim said that the current voluntary review process for dual use research was not ideal. “This is not the process that should be used for reviewing these types of papers in the future,” he said. “I suspect that high potential dual use research of concern, which is addressed in these new government regulations, will be monitored in a ‘cradle to grave type’ process that is much different from what it has been in the past.”

He added that what was needed was “global engagement across different sectors of our society” to develop a policy in this area internationally, “otherwise this very productive research area could be stymied.”

This week the Royal Society is holding an international scientific meeting to discuss the practice and policy of H5N1 research, in light of the Nature and Science papers (


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2512

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