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

Tunnel Bombs Highlight Savagery of Aleppo Fight

Rebels have used tunneling tactic near government buildings, command posts or supply routes to set off explosives; they detonated their largest bomb this week under Syria's intelligence headquarters More

Sierra Leone Launches New Initiative to Stop Ebola Spread

Government hopes Infection and Prevention Control Units, IPC, will help protect patients and healthcare workers More

UN Official: Fight Against Terrorism Must Not Violate Human Rights

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says efforts by states to combat terrorism are resulting in large scale rights violations against the very citizens they claim to defend 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.
Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boyi
X
Jeff Seldin
March 05, 2015 2:36 AM
A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Ukrainian Authorities Struggle to Secure a Divided Mariupol

Since last month's cease-fire went into effect, shelling around the port city of Mariupol has decreased, but it is thought pro-Russian separatists remain poised to attack. For the city’s authorities, a major challenge is gaining the trust of residents, while at the same time rooting out informants who are passing sensitive information to the rebels. Patrick Wells reports for VOA.
Video

Video Volunteer Gauge-Watchers Help Fine-Tune Weather Science

An observation system called CoCoRaHS is working to improve weather science, thanks to thousands of volunteers across the country who measure precipitation in their own backyards, then share their data through the Internet. VOA's Shelley Schlender reports.
Video

Video NASA Spacecraft Approaches a Dwarf Planet

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will make history on Friday, March 6, when it becomes the first man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet named Ceres. It is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, almost 500 million kilometers from Earth. Among other objectives, Dawn will try to examine two mysterious bright white spots detected on the planet’s surface. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Muslims Radicalized Online

Young Muslims are being radicalized ‘in their bedrooms’ through direct contact with Islamic State or ISIL fighters via the Internet, according to terror experts. There are growing concerns that authorities and Internet providers are not doing enough to counter online extremism - which analysts say is spread by a prolific network of online supporters around the world. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video African Americans Recall 1960s Fight For Voting Rights

U.S. President Barack Obama and thousands of people will gather in the small southern U.S. city of Selma, Alabama, Saturday, March 7 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic voting rights march that became known as “Bloody Sunday." VOA’s Chris Simkins traveled to Alabama and introduces us to some of the foot soldiers of the voting rights struggles of the 1960s.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.

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