News / Health

Terrorism Fears Prompt Call for Restrictions on Publishing Virus Research

An Indonesian man helps health officials cull poultry in the village where a 14-year-old boy died of bird flu Thursday Jan. 11, 2007.
An Indonesian man helps health officials cull poultry in the village where a 14-year-old boy died of bird flu Thursday Jan. 11, 2007.
Vidushi Sinha

The U.S. government has asked two scientific journals not to publish key details of a federally-funded experiment that created new, more infectious strains of a deadly bird flu virus.  Government biosecurity advisers have raised concerns that some of this information could be used by terrorists. The scientific community is debating how to balance the free flow of research data with national security.

H5N1 is the name of a bird flu virus that's commonly found infecting poultry flocks in Southeast Asia, but one that has rarely infected humans. But when it has, the bird flu has proved to be a highly infectious and potent disease, that is fatal 60 percent of the time.

But in a unique biomedical experiment, scientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, engineered a strain of H5N1 that spreads more easily between mammals than the original strain - which means that some variants can also be more contagious to humans.

It was this possibility that concerned the government's biosecurity advisers.

The U.S.-based journal Science and the British journal Nature were asked by the government not to publish certain details of the experiment's methodology because that data could be used by terrorists to create a biological weapon.

The research was funded by the U.S. government. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases says the research was funded because the virus is a legitimate public health concern.

But Dr. Fauci believes the government also has a responsibility to oversee the results of such experiments.

“You have to strike a delicate balance between making information available for those who have a need to know for the good of public health, as well as not making it so freely available that anyone - even people without a legitimate need to know - can have access to it,” Fauici said.

The editor in chief of the journal Science, Dr. Bruce Alberts, says this is an important moment in the history of scientific publishing. He says this research and how Science and the British journal Nature decide to publish it will set a precedent for future publications.

It is likely, Dr. Alberts says, that given the prevailing threat of terrorism, barriers to free access to scientific data will recur in the future.

“We will publish the version that is appropriate but missing some key information. We have been delaying publishing - we are working with our authors to make sure that at the time of publication we could also announce a mechanism - that will ensure scientists anywhere with a need to know - they will have appropriate opportunity to get the information that they might need,” Alberts said.

The H5N1 study goes on to show that it is much easier to evolve this virus into a state where it can be transmitted through the air by coughing or sneezing, which could lead to a severe pandemic.

Dr. Alberts says that is why the U.S. government funded the research in the first place. Scientists want to understand the virus in its deadliest form so that they can start working on drugs and vaccines against H5N1, to prevent a worldwide pandemic.

But critics say the limits placed on the publication of the research raise legitimate concerns about who should have access to that knowledge.  Paul Roepe, Co-Director of the Center for Infectious Diseases, says viruses always mutate.  Sooner or later, he believes, virologists all over the world would be able to figure out the H5N1 mutation.

“Not as fast as these folk have done it, but that doesn’t mean that people in other laboratories -- even laboratories in countries that ...are not terribly friendly...will not able to do this,” Roepe said.

The controversy over the new strains of the H5N1 virus -- which are being stored in secure labs in the U.S. and Europe -- has also raised concern about the possibility that the new virus might escape, or be stolen, prompting calls for more secure research facilities.

You May Like

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More