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.