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.

The best defense against bioterrorism is the open and international scientific enterprise itself, not government recommended (and perhaps one day enforced) secrecy.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

*Thanks to Alex Berezow from RealClearScience for pointing out that the originally cited figure was wrong. About 30 million Americans suffer from flu each year and the CDC estimates that 36,000 die of it each year, yielding an annual U.S. influenza death rate of 0.12 percent.