Can Scientific Censorship Stop Bioterrorism?

The best defense against a deadly attack with avian flu is the open scientific enterprise.

Today the U.S. National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that the journals Nature and Science restrict publication about controversial new research relevant to the transmission of avian flu between humans. The fear: Would-be bioterrorists are combing the pages of the journals for tips on how to wreak havoc.

The H5N1 avian flu virus has killed 60 percent of the 600 or so people known to have come down with it since it was first identified in 1997. For comparison, seasonal flu in the United States kills about 0.1 0.003* percent of those who catch it. So far the H5N1 virus has not become easily transmissible between humans. But recently two research teams, one in the Netherlands and another in Wisconsin, reported that they had succeeded in transforming the virus into versions that are transmissible via respiratory drops through the air between mammals. In the normal course of scientific research, the teams approached the journals Science and Nature about publishing their results. Publication is the way that scientists get credit for their achievements and enable fellow researchers to benefit from and build upon their work.

Reports of this research, however, provoked worries that publishing the recipe for making the bird flu virus transmissible could enable bioterrorists to unleash a devastating global epidemic that could kill billions of people. The editorial page editors at The New York Times are so frightened at the prospect that they have called on the researchers to destroy their new strains of the virus. Consequently, concerned journal editors and peer reviewers sought the advice of the U.S. National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). In December, the NSABB recommended that the journals withhold research details to impede would-be bioterrorists.

In January, the two research teams agreed to a two-month moratorium on further research on their modified flu viruses. In addition, the World Health Organization is convening a meeting of prominent influenza researchers to discuss what should be done. Today, the NSABB is publishing its recommendation to restrict communication [PDF] of these scientific results in Nature and Science.

A research moratorium is not new to the life sciences. Back in 1974, several prominent biologists concerned about the “potential biohazards”[PDF] posed by then new gene-splicing techniques published in leading scientific journals a call for a moratorium on certain kinds of experiments. A year later, a group of 140 scientists along with a few lawyers and journalists convened at Asilomar in California where they proposed a scheme for containing gene-spliced experimental organisms [PDF] in laboratories. This scheme evolved into laboratory regulations under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. The NSABB cites this history, arguing, “We believe that this is another Asilomar-type moment for public health and infectious-disease research that urgently needs our attention.” That’s about right, but not necessarily in a good way.

The positive spin on history is that the 1974 research moratorium and the 1975 Asilomar meeting calmed public fears and enabled the new biotech research to proceed. Some participants now disagree, arguing that the fact that researchers had called for a moratorium instead inflamed the public. “I knew the [Asilomar] letter would give rise to a sort of fire-storm of ill-informed brave new world stuff,” said Asilomar participant and former New York Times science reporter Victor McElheny in 2009.

In fact, The New York Times in 1976 helped fan the flames of “brave new world stuff” by publishing an article, “New Strains of Life—or Death,” in which Cornell University biochemist Liebe Cavalieri warned that gene-splicing could lead to accidental outbreaks of infectious cancer. “In the case of recombinant DNA, it is an all or none situation—only one accident is needed to endanger the future of mankind,” warned Cavalieri. Forty years after the first gene-splicing experiments by biologists Paul Berg, Herbert Boyer, and Stanley Cohen, unregulated molecular biology experiments are common in high school biology classes and humanity is not yet afflicted with lab-made infectious cancers.

The NSABB research censorship recommendations provoke reflection on two general issues. First, governments, and especially defense bureaucracies, are addicted to secrecy [PDF]. Knowledge is power and government bureaucracies are in the business of accumulating and hoarding power. This is the opposite of science, which thrives in an atmosphere of transparency. While on very rare occasions there may be reasons to withhold temporarily scientific findings from the public, the default must always be openness.

The second issue is just how plausible is it that bioterrorists or hostile governments are eager to brew up and release a pandemic strain of deadly flu? The would-be bioterrorists would have no way to prevent it from infecting themselves, their families, friends, fellow citizens, and co-religionists. It’s possible that unleashing a pandemic might appeal to some kind of millenarian death cult, but your average terrorist and dictator are unlikely to conclude that a flu epidemic is a good idea. Bioterrorism using infectious agents is likely self-deterring.

On the other hand, even as the NSABB recommends secrecy and restriction, it acknowledges “that there are clear benefits to be realized for the public good in alerting humanity of this potential threat and in pursuing those aspects of this work that will allow greater preparedness and the potential development of novel strategies leading to future disease control.” First, avian flu is percolating out in nature, and there is every possibility that it will eventually mutate into a strain that infects people. The new research may have given public health officials a jumpstart on what to look for as they monitor changes in natural avian flu strains.

Second, researchers have been working on various treatments aimed at ameliorating or preventing avian flu among humans. These new air-transmissible strains could be used to see how effective current treatments may be and to guide the development of new treatments and vaccines.

Consider an earlier case of bioterrorism jitters provoked by publishing research on how to resurrect the Spanish flu. In 2005, researchers published the details of the viral strain that killed perhaps 50 million people in 1918. At the time some warned that the 1918 flu was “perhaps the most effective bioweapons agent now known.” However, as a result of the publication of that research we now know that that bioweapon fear was overblown. 

As one of the lead researchers on the Spanish flu genome project, Peter Palese, recently pointed out, after publication lots of new researchers focused on the virus and happily discovered that it responds to seasonal vaccines and anti-flu drugs like Tamiflu and Symmetrel. “Had we not reconstructed the virus and shared our results with the community, we would still be in fear that a nefarious scientist would recreate the Spanish flu and release it on an unprotected world,” writes Palese. “We now know such a worst-case scenario is no longer possible.”

On January 25th, one of the lead avian flu researchers, Yoshihiro Kawaoka from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argued in Nature that the research on transmissible avian flu must continue in order to protect people. Now that researchers know that avian flu can be transformed into transmissible strains, monitoring could facilitate eradication efforts and other countermeasures should such changes be detected in natural strains.

“The redaction of our manuscript, intended to contain risk, will make it harder for legitimate scientists to get this information while failing to provide a barrier to those who would do harm,” asserts Kawaoka. Spanish flu researcher Palese concurs, “The more danger a pathogen poses, the more important it is to study it (under appropriate containment conditions), and to share the results with the scientific community. Slowing down the scientific enterprise will not 'protect' the public—it only makes us more vulnerable.” Both are right.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Tim||

    Is there a possibility that a flu website could go viral?

  • lily||

    My neighbor just met a bisexual man on ---datebi*cOMit’s where for men and women looking for bisexual and bi-curious individuals to meet in a friendly and comfortable environment.
    It’s a nice place for the people who have the same sexual orientation.

  • Tim||

    Aaaaagh! Sexpot on the loose!

  • Katherine ManGoo Wad||

    I may be a sexpot but at least I'm monogamous!

  • Colonel_Angus||

    YOU CANT YELL FIRE IN A CROWDED THEATER!

  • Judge Holmes||

    Or protest the draft while our dear progressive leader has a war boner, which is basically the same thing.

  • Realist||

    Sure you can.

  • RoboCain||

    "So far the H5N1 virus has not become easily transmissible between humans."

    Is that a nice way of saying, "don't fuck chickens"?

  • Colonel_Angus||

    What the fuck are you getting at? Do you fuck chickens?

  • RoboCain||

    Sorry, I'm here to post links, not talk about my sex life.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    This boy over here sounds sexually frustruated.

  • FAILtastic||

    Ernie Anastos would disagree with that advice:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....895EA8584D

  • Every Palestinian Male||

    That's advice we won't be taking.

  • ||

    "The best defense against a deadly attack with avian flu is the open scientific enterprise."

    No, the best defense against bird flu is kimchi!

  • Gus||

    Love the stuff. Eat it every day.

  • RoboCain||

    Pickled Korea is best Korea!

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy.||

    recently two research teams, one in the Netherlands and another in Wisconsin, reported that they had succeeded in transforming the [H1N1 flu] virus into versions that are transmissible via respiratory drops through the air between mammals

    I find myself wondering why they thought it was a great idea to produce THIS modification to THAT virus.

    I mean, why wasn't this a good time to pick a related model---say something less dangerous but blocked on the same channel---to diddle? Or maybe to produce a H1N1 that could be transmitted between frogs or something?

    You know, same principle but not actual solving the problem of making this stuff more dangerous.

    Or am I being naive?

    But now that they gone and done it, we should at least know what they've done.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    They wanted to know the characteristics of this virus, especially how easy it is for it to mutate.

  • ||

    Clearly Colonel, you see people in a better light than I do. I say they did it because they figured they could sell a weaponized virus for a shit-pot full of money.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    It would have been done already with a more effective virus that probably obtained the necessary mutations on its own. And I'm sure it has. The problem is delivery, and this virus would probably be too much trouble to weaponize, compared to something like anthrax.

  • ||

    Mad scientists create a new virus. What's the worst that could happen?

  • ||

    This reminds me of ye olde TV show Millenium. Had its ups and downs, but the ending of one season (obviously intended to be the ending of the show, but they strung it out) was brilliant.

    Had to do with a mutated killer virus that was released. Our hero had one shot of the antidote, and a wife and kid. Very well told - it ended (as best as I can remember, its been a long time) with a staticy TV and somebody pleading for anyone to help them over the radio.

  • Mike the Bike||

    Yes, great idea. Also we should ban research on: oil, gas, non-electric engines, mining, stock breeding, automation, economics, atomic physics, chemistry, genetics, agriculture, statistics and maths!

  • Gus||

    Yes, great idea. Also we should ban Federally Funded research on: oil, gas, non-electric engines, mining, stock breeding, automation, economics, atomic physics, chemistry, genetics, agriculture, statistics and maths!

    FIFY

  • Coach Panto||

    C'mon my fellow nerds! Are we gonna let our opponents scare us into not playing the science game for fear of somebody using science against us?

    Why don't we ban logic for the same reason? Or ban information in general?

    Finally, we can ban knowledge, and pre-emptively execute people who know too much!

    Cmon scientists! Sack up and write these Ludds and tell them, in the kindest way possible, to go forn themselves with various species of cacti!

  • ||

    "....we can ban knowledge....ban information in general...ban logic....pre-emptively execute people who know too much..."

    Been there, done that.

  • ||

    I think we can both recommend that research continue and at the same time not allow EVERYONE to get the specifics on how easy it is to mutate this virus into something that could wipe out 60% of mankind.

    Also, I would recommend checking out NNVC they have product about to go to the FDA that could protect against the FLu and most other viruses. IT's been shown to be about 1000 times more effective than tamiflu.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    "recommend that research continue and at the same time not allow EVERYONE to get the specifics"

    But not force anyone to comply, either.

    "how easy it is to mutate this virus into something that could wipe out 60% of mankind."

    The part about scientifically mutating a virus wouldn't be that useful to terrorists. The concern would be mass or targeted transmission, whether it was contagious or not.

  • Apparently Still Too White||

    Reading this makes me feel "othered"

    http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com.....hpt=hp_bn1

  • lily||

    Bi-sexual information?Seeking for the people have the same sexual orientation. please consult the site ---datebi*cO'm---, you will find the like-minded people!

  • Ohh, lily||

    can you post your personal email so I can find out more about bi-curious females?

  • ||

  • lily||

    My neighbor just met a bisexual man on ---datebi*cOMit’s where for men and women looking for bisexual and bi-curious individuals to meet in a friendly and comfortable environment.
    It’s a nice place for the people who have the same sexual orientation.

  • Ohh, lily||

    my clit starts twitching when I read your postings.

  • cbmclean||

    Hmm, from the looks of things I night need to brush up on my directions to Hemingford Home, Nebraska.

  • ||

    in a word no, it wont stop anything

  • Cheap Coldplay Tickets||

    The use of alternatives that do not cause harm to individuals but impact the financial system have been described.

  • دردشه عراقية||

    Thanks

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