Issue: March 2012
February 03, 2012
2 min read

NSABB defends decision to not publicize details of engineered virulent H5N1 strain

Berns KI. Nature. 2012;doi:10.1038/482153a.

Issue: March 2012
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Members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recently published a defense of its recommendation that details regarding the methodology behind the engineered virulent form of the H5N1 influenza virus not be made public.

Published in the journals Science and Nature, the defense statement recounted the researchers’ concerns that advances in modern technology would allow microbial genome engineering in ways that could be misused, leading to potential global pandemic.

Noting that the public release of information regarding the transmissible, virulent H5N1 strain could have severe ramifications for global biosecurity, biosafety and public health, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) concluded that the publication of the scientists’ methodology would not be responsible.

“We found the potential risk of public harm to be of unusually high magnitude. Because the NSABB found that there was significant potential for harm in fully publishing these results and that the harm exceeded the benefits of publication, we therefore recommended that the work not be fully communicated in an open forum,” NSABB members said in the statement. “This is an unprecedented recommendation for work in the life sciences, and our analysis was conducted with careful consideration both of the potential benefits of publication and of the potential harm that could occur from such a precedent.”


Theodore C. Eickhoff, MD
Theodore C. Eickhoff, MD

This issue has generated an enormous torrent of words on both sides of the argument. The issue is reminiscent of the arguments about destruction of the last known stores of smallpox virus in laboratories in Atlanta and Moscow; this argument, however, is much more compressed in time.

Two well-known influenza virologists, Ron Fouchier, PhD, and his team at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, and another team led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, DVM, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Tokyo, both conducted research both generated mutant H5N1viruses that could be transmitted within ferrets colonies. In Fouchier’s model, the transmitted virus was lethal to ferrets; in Karaoka’s model, however, the mutant virus was not lethal. It was clear in these experiments that the mutant H5N1 virus that emerged could be transmitted via the airborne route to ferrets. Ferrets have historically been used as a model for influenza in humans.

The NASBB reasoned that these studies, if published in their entirety, could be a blueprint for putative bioterrorists to unleash a lethal H5N1 virus that is perfectly capable of human-to-human transmission. They therefore requested that critical methodological details be omitted from the publications, but remain available to ‘qualified’ researchers.

This potential governmental limitation on the free flow of scientific information led to the current heated and ongoing discussions. In the last 6 to 8 weeks, many discussions have been reported both in scientific journals ( Science, Nature, Annals of Internal Medicine, and probably others) and even the lay media. The New York Academy of Sciences has sponsored a forum on the topic, and the WHO is convening a symposium on the issue Feb. 16-17.. Readers who wish to look into this issue more closely should probably best start with the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy ( ). For my part, I would tilt toward maintaining the free flow of science. Ferrets are useful for some purposes, but they still are just ferrets — not humans.

- Theodore C. Eickhoff, MD

Infectious Disease News Editor Emeritus

Disclosure: Dr. Eickhoff reports no relevant financial disclosures.

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