Scientific Triumph Meets Political Nightmare: H5N1 Raises Issues of Fear and Free Speech

by Lindsay Ward on January 10, 2012

As 2011 drew to a close, controversy was brewing in the offices of some of the most prominent scientific journals in the field: both Science  and Nature received manuscripts in the last quarter of the year describing research on the highly-pathogenic influenza virus A subtype H5N1. This virus is historically very highly lethal, but barely transmitted between humans. The pathogen currently passes mostly from animals to people, but viruses acquire mutations quickly and easily as they proceed through different host species and generations.

Researchers at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, led by Ron Fouchier, developed and genetically fingerprinted a variant of the “bird flu” virus that is easily transmitted among ferrets in a laboratory context. Since these animals are used as the ideal model organism for human virology studies, we can guess that human populations would respond similarly if they became exposed. The mutations identified by the Fouchier group were all mutations that had been identified in different wild virus isolates, but the unique combination in a single virus sample appeared to lend the specific highly-contagious pattern to their lab-developed strain. Another lab, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, has also examined and manipulated transmissibility characteristics of the virus, but the details are under wraps due to journals’ editorial processes.

Upon finding out about these particularly risky-sounding studies, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), headed by microbial geneticist Paul Keim, convened meeting after meeting to discuss what extent of publication would be appropriate and safe for these controversial studies. Quoted in ScienceInsider, a blog hosted by the journal Science, Keim said, “I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one.”

In late December, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommended that certain portions of the papers be redacted: methodology and technical approaches should not be described in the publicly available research papers, though legitimate scientific institutions would be provided an avenue for reasonable requests for more information. Both the Kawaoka and Fouchier groups agreed to go along with the limitations, though not without expressing frustration. The Erasmus Medical Center team was particularly annoyed, according to some sources, and they insisted on simultaneously publishing an editorial on the issue. This article is presently not easily accessible through Science nor the Erasmus MC virology website.

Other infectious disease experts such as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett and author John Barry, who wrote The Great Influenza, are concerned about the situation’s long-ranging implications for both science and publishing. Barry states, in an article with, that the situation is an issue of censorship, and is greatly displeased that scientific literature is being treated in such a way. Ms. Garrett, on the other hand, expresses concern that so little international or even American policy exists to handle the complicated questions created by the biotechnology revolution.

These new flu strains present a lot of questions about biosecurity and scientific ethics: would it be wise to allow complete publishing of these methods and results? Should scientific research be carried out and published without political intervention? Can a happy medium be found, enabling biosecurity-oriented oversight alongside scientifically rigorous and honest research and publication? As discussed by Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, the idea of a uniform pre-approval system for research with biosecurity implications seems wise. Such a set-up would avoid pandemic-risk “surprises,” and could harmonize the approach taken by research organizations around the world. Avoiding deadly pandemics is surely a global concern. However, instituting further layers of bureaucracy and institutional review can rightly be seen as limiting the pace and even possibly the reach of biomedical research. It will be interesting to see how this saga plays out.


[Image, Influenza Virus, by Renjith Krishnan]

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