Bird-Flu Papers, Recently Deemed Too Dangerous, Are Freed for Publication

March 30, 2012

In a move on Friday that elated many scientists and worried a few others, a U.S. biosecurity panel recommended the publication of two revised papers on the bird-flu virus. The same panel had, back in December, called for the papers to be partly censored before publication because, it said, they contained dangerous information that could trigger a bird-flu pandemic.

"We've been saying all along that these papers should be published, so this is good news," said Vincent R. Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University. One of the authors, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said his paper still contains the data and methods that caused concern in the first place, with some elaboration about safety issues. It is possible that both papers could be published online as soon as next week, some speculated.

The papers show that a few mutations in the H5N1 avian influenza virus could make it transmissible through the air among mammals, including human beings. The wild form of the virus now mainly infects birds. The lead authors of each paper, Mr. Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center, in the Netherlands, were set to publish them in the prominent journals Nature and Science, respectively.

Then the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a panel of scientists that was asked to review the papers by the National Institutes of Health, threw a roadblock in the way. It said the list of mutations should be removed from the papers before they were published because the virus had an estimated human fatality rate of 50 to 60 percent, and many labs experimenting with the mutated form would raise the chances of an accidental escape or even give terrorists the chance to use it.

The advisory board's action was an unprecedented form of censorship, and it set off a storm of controversy, with the authors and scientists like Mr. Racaniello arguing that studying those very mutations was the best way to watch for a threatening outbreak of the disease, and to develop ways to combat it. Journal editors decried the interference with communication among scientists.

But some infectious-disease experts like D.A. Henderson, the scientist who led the worldwide effort to eradicate smallpox and is now a distinguished scholar at the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said the censorship was a good idea because the risks of publishing outweighed the benefits.

Improving Surveillance

After meeting on Thursday and Friday morning in Washington, D.C., the board decided that the benefits now outweigh the risks. "The data described in the revised manuscripts do not appear to provide information that would immediately enable misuse of the research in ways that would endanger public health or national security," the board said in a statement. In addition, it said, "new evidence has emerged that underscores the fact that understanding specific mutations may improve international surveillance."

Part of that evidence, Mr. Kawaoka wrote in an e-mail, is contained in his revisions, which "provided a more in-depth explanation of the significance of the findings to public health and a description of the laboratory biosafety and biosecurity." His paper, he added, would contain descriptions of all the mutations that enhanced transmission of the virus, the very data that initially concerned the board.

Mr. Racaniello said that arguments made since the board's initial decision might have swayed its members. "All of these mutations have already been seen in circulating strains of H5N1," he said. With the papers, "we now know they contribute to transmissibility. So if you start seeing one of them, or more than one, you should increase surveillance in that geographic region."

The board also changed its position, Mr. Kawaoka suggested, "because the meeting helped everyone to better understand not only the research, but the precautions taken to conduct these studies."

The board did not focus on claims that the flu's lethality was exaggerated, though outside scientists repeatedly argued over that point. Dueling papers were published recently about the fatality rate, some asserting that it is lower than the official estimate and that the risk is overstated, and others arguing that those papers are miscalculations.

Dr. Henderson, who stands by the official H5N1 fatality estimates, which come from the World Health Organization, appeared disappointed by the decision to publish the papers. The fatality rate is higher than that of smallpox, he said, "and this virus can spread better and faster than anything else we have."

However, he agreed with Mr. Kawaoka that people better understood the safety issues now, and he said that was important. "There's been an educational process going on here that I'm very pleased about. The risk will be reduced because labs that work with this virus won't treat it casually, but as something that's very dangerous."

He noted that in the debate "there was a lot of emphasis on the modified virus as a bioterror agent. But that's the least of the problem. It was the many labs that could work with the virus and its possible escape that really concerned me. If this got out of the lab, you are not going to be able to contain it."

More details could emerge in London next Tuesday. There, at a meeting convened by the Royal Society, both flu-paper authors, the editors of Science and of Nature, and several other scientists are gathering to discuss the controversy. Given the publishing green light from the biosecurity board, they should be able to talk about the specifics of the work.

The board has forwarded its new recommendation to the agency that first asked the scientists to withhold publication, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency usually follows the board's advice.

And Mr. Kawaoka, when asked if he was pleased with Friday's decision, answered in one emphatic word: "Yes."

Correction (3/31/2012, 8:02 a.m.): This article originally stated that the board might have been swayed by arguments about flu fatality rates, but the board did not focus on those arguments. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.