Why are we censoring bird flu science?
Scientists working in the Netherlands and Wisconsin have engineered a version of the highly lethal H5N1 “bird flu” that easily transmits in ferrets, the best animal model for human spread. This news has so alarmed a federal advisory panel that it has now asked the two leading scientific journals, Science and Nature, to censor the papers each lab has submitted for publication lest the information fall into the hands of terrorists. (Here’s the Page One coverage of the story from the New York Times and Washington Post.)
The request has roiled the scientific community, with some researchers backing the panel’s request, which is not binding, others lamenting the fact that the research was ever done, and others defending the bird flu work as essential research.
The panel—the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity—was established in 2004 as a response to the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States. The scientific community resisted the direct controls the Bush administration wanted on biological research, the Times reports, and eventually agreed to the advisory panel that could be called upon to review potentially dangerous research. “I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” NSABB chair Paul Keim, an experienced anthrax researcher, told Science Insider Reporter Martin Enserink in November. “I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”
That the H5N1 variant is scary deadly is conceded by one of its creators, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. In November, he told Enserink that it is “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.” Normally, H5N1 is only transmitted from chickens to farmers working in extremely close contact with infected birds. (Of 570 confirmed cases of H5N1 infection in humans, 335 died, writes science reporter Helen Branswell.) But the laboratory mutated H5N1 does not require close contact to infect: ferrets sickened by the virus transmitted it to other ferrets living in adjoining cages via coughs and sneezes.
Even an unenforceable request by the government to suppress the flow of information rankles free-speech radicals like me. We believe in open inquiry and unfettered communications, and battle the redaction machine whenever the censors start its engine.
That’s the romantic notion, but in practice not every newsroom teems with free-speech radicals, and even many of those who consider themselves such are much more accommodating of authority than their rhetoric would imply. For instance, the American press has historically consulted the government when reporting on “sensitive” national security issues, something documented by veteran journalists Jack Nelson (pdf) and Allan M. Siegal (pdf) in separate papers they wrote as Shorenstein Center fellows. This is not to say that journalists are pushovers who bow to all national security establishment commands and wishes, but the press does routinely give the government an opportunity to make the argument for non-publication when working on a big story.
When Dana Priest and William Arkin published their stunning three-part series, “Top Secret America,” in the Washington Post, an editors’ note explained that the Post had allowed government officials to see the Web site that accompanied the article several months before publication so that they could “tell us of any specific concerns,” and obliged some of the government’s requests while declining others. When CIA contractor Raymond A. Davis was arrested in Pakistan after a Lahore shoot-out, the New York Times and other publications temporarily withheld publishing Davis’s CIA connection at the request of the Obama administration, which told the Times that publishing that information would put his life at risk. (The Times disclosed its Obama administration agreement in this news story about Davis.)
Moving away from journalism and back to science, the government has long placed prior classification on bomb-related physics, which seems defensible. “The secrets of fission, and implosion, and so on had little or no near-term civilian application. So restricting access to them did not seriously impede scientific development in other areas,” says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, who I consider a conscientious free speech radical. But Aftergood says bird flu research isn’t precisely analogous because the H5N1 findings may be valuable for medical investigation, including those working on vaccines. “It’s a difficult balance to achieve,” he says.
One argument for publishing the H5N1 journal articles in unredacted form is that the information contained in them has already been released—Fouchier gave his findings earlier this year at a conference and the paper has already been shared among bio-scientists. To quote Tom Waits, you can’t un-ring a bell. Another is that the complete articles will, as Aftergood points out, give vaccine scientists an edge should the genes in H5N1 mutate in nature the way they did in the laboratory. If that happens, we’ll all wish that the papers had been widely distributed and studied so that, as Enserink writes in Science Insider, researchers would have been able spot the mutated virus in the wild and “test whether H5N1 vaccines and antiviral drugs would work against the new strain.” (By the way, you could argue that this whole controversy is of the U.S. government’s making, seeing as its National Institutes of Health sponsored the H5N1 research.)
Setting aside the issue of censorship for a moment, the H5N1 studies shake us at the core because they tap into the Frankenstein myth. We’ve been trained by novelists and filmmakers that scientists who create contagions, poisons, and monsters will lose control of them, and that as a result thousands, or millions of us will die.
That Frankenstein relationship doesn’t apply to scientists who merely “uncover” information about contagions, as my friend Jon Cohen points out in a July/August 2002 Atlantic feature, even though their findings could also be used to devise bioweapons. Cohen writes that in 2001, several days before the 9/11 attacks, Science published two important papers about the flu: One about the genetic changes that may have created the Spanish flu that killed millions in 1918 and another about the small genetic change that had made what was then called the 1997 Hong Kong flu—now known as the H5N1 bird flu virus—more deadly. Neither article provoked coverage about how a bioterrorist might capitalize on these studies. Nor did scientific panic ensue in 2005 when Science published an article about the reconstruction of the virus behind the 1918 flu. In fact, the current advisory panel signed off on the publication of that study for good reason: To help stop the next killer flu.
Let’s proceed with the understanding that the researchers aren’t Osama bin Ladens in laboratory coats. They surely have good reasons for wanting to publish expansively from their findings. Also, consulting with the U.S. government, as our journalists friends have shown, does not equal censorship, so everybody who is on that horse, kindly dismount. As currently constituted, the government committee is an advisory body, not the Myanmar Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, and asking a scientist or a scientific journal to withhold details about how to make a highly transmissible bird flu is not unreasonable.
What’s needed is a fuller debate between the fretting government advisers and the working scientists who are pushing to make everything public. I suspect that that’s what’s happening now behind closed doors. ‘Tis a shame we can’t hear it, too.
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PHOTO: A worker wearing a protection suit culls chickens at a poultry farm where the bird flu virus had been found in Takanabe Town, Miyazaki prefecture January 31, 2011.