Too late to contain killer flu science, say experts

US government's hopes of suppressing details of controversial research may be doomed, say scientists

Science Editor

Attempts to censor details of controversial influenza experiments that created a highly infectious form of bird-flu virus are unlikely to stop the information from leaking out, according to scientists familiar with the research.

The US Government has asked the editors of two scientific journals to refrain from publishing key parts of research on the H5N1 strain of bird-flu in order to prevent the information falling into the hands of terrorists intent on recreating the same flu strain for use as a bioweapon.

However, scientists yesterday condemned the move. Some said that the decision comes too late because the information has already been shared widely among flu researchers, while others argued that the move could obstruct attempts to find new vaccines and drugs against an infectious form of human H5N1 if it appeared naturally.

Professor Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, said that the research, which was funded by the US Government, should never have been done without first assessing the risks and benefits.

“The work posed risks that outweighed benefits and that were clearly foreseeable before the work was performed,” Professor Ebright said.

“The work should have been reviewed at the national or international level before being performed, and should have been restricted at a national or international level before being performed,” he said.

Two teams of researchers, one led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam and the other by Yoshihiro Kawaoke of  the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have submitted manuscripts on bird-flu virus to the journals Nature and Science. In them, they describe how they deliberately mutated the H5N1 strain of bird-flu into an “airborne” strain that can be transmitted in coughs and sneezes between laboratory ferrets, the best animal “model” of human flu.

In an unprecedented move, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funded both projects, requested the deletion of key details of the methodology and viral genetic sequences from the manuscripts prior to publication. It did so following recommendations of its own independent advisers on the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.

Professor Paul Keim, chairman of the biosecurity board, said that the request to withhold certain details of the research is not the same as censorship and, although it sets a precedent in the biological sciences, it is common in other areas of science where there is potential for dual use of research in both civil and military applications.

“The US Government doesn’t have the legal authority to stop these publications. They have requested that the journals and scientists refrain from publishing the full details of their work, at this time,” Professor Keim said.

“It is hard to call that censorship. If the data and methods are restricted by the authors and journals, it is a voluntary action on their part. I also think that it is the responsible action for the current situation, and so does the US Government,” he said.

However, Dr Fouchier at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam said that although his institute has agreed to abide by the voluntary restrictions on publication, he said it will be almost impossible to guarantee the confidentiality of the information given that the scientific data has already been shared with hundreds of researchers and governments in open scientific meetings.

Flu scientists in Britain, meanwhile, said that it is doubtful whether the details of the two experiments can be kept secret even if Science and Nature agree to the redaction of key parts of the scientific manuscripts – which they seem to have accepted.

“The exact mutations that made this transformation possible were not particularly novel or unexpected so anyone with a reasonable knowledge of influenza virology could probably guess at them if they so wished,” said Wendy Barclay, professor of influenza virology at Imperial College London.

“I’m very wary that information should be withheld from the scientific literature because we move forward by sharing information. It’s important to know if viruses such as H5N1 are capable of tolerating the mutations that would allow human-to-human transmission,” Professor Barclay said.

“We need to know the mutations to look our for. If we don’t know what the mutations are that make the virus more transmissible, we won’t know what to look out for when we monitor the spread of new flu viruses. This type of information is generated for a good reason – it’s to help us to be prepared,” she said.

Professor John Oxford, a flu expert at Queen Mary University of London, agreed: “The study by Fouchier is a huge service to all of us because it reminds us of how wafer thin the barrier is between a benign H5N1 virus and one that could spread easily. The 120 WHO flu labs around the world can use the DNA sequence information to identify and stop the spread of new H5N1 variants.”

Dangerous science: Discoveries for good – and bad

Nuclear physics

The splitting of the atom and the science of sub-atomic physics led to the development of nuclear power and advances in nuclear medicine, such as MRI scanners. It also helped the advance of nuclear weapons based on nuclear fission (A-bombs) and thermonuclear fusion (H-bombs).

Rocket technology

The development of rockets in the 1950s led to man's first landing on the moon. Since then rockets have placed countless civilian satellites in orbit, as well as powering space probes. But rockets are also the key delivery system for intercontinental ballistic missiles that carry nuclear warheads.

Neuroscience

Many areas of neuroscience have potential dual-use capabilities. For example, drugs that induce semi-conscious states may have legitimate medical uses, but they could also be used as incapacitating agents in military applications, to induce panic, pain, depression or delirium.

Molecular biology

Advances in DNA technology and genetic engineering, which have allowed scientists to reconstruct the genomes of simple organisms, have produced many benefits, from new vaccines to pest-resistant crops. But molecular biology could also be used to produce "weaponised" viruses and microbes that could kill large numbers of people.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Jodie Stimpson crosses the finishing line to win gold in the women's triathlon
Commonwealth games
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Biomass Sales Consultant

£20000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

Java Developer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My Client are a successful software hous...

Senior Analyst - Financial Modelling

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This really is a fantastic chance to joi...

MS Dynamics NAV/Navision Developer

£45000 - £53000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: **MS DYNAMICS N...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game