Update (01/02/2012): Both Science and Nature have agreed to redact the papers.
danger biohazard Bird Flu Research: To Censor or not to Censor?

The journals Nature and Science have this week been drawn in to conflict with the US government. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has asked the journals to redact studies by two research groups who have created a new form of H5N1. The artificial strain can be spread between ferrets – typically a sign that the virus could spread between humans. The journals are objecting to the request, arguing that the information is valuable for public health.

The debate is set to be a ferociously contested one, with strong arguments on both sides and the legal territory completely without precedent.  With one of the labs based in Rotterdam and one of the labs based in Wisconsin the question of jurisdiction is significant. The case made by the journals is that the mutated H5N1 virus could be used to create a vaccine. The paper would allow thousands of research labs around the world to work towards creating a vaccine for the virus. Scientists are predicting that the virus is likely to mutate soon without assistance so it is argued that the more people that are working on a vaccine the better.

Over 500 people have now been infected with H5N1 and 60% of those infected have died. The only reason we have not already witnessed a pandemic is that currently the virus can only be spread between birds. Birds can infect humans but the virus cannot currently be passed on to another human. This state of affairs will inevitably come to an end in the future when the virus mutates naturally. The argument is that when the virus mutates we will need to have a vaccine already made otherwise we will witness deaths of biblical proportions. There may be little time to waste, only yesterday in Hong Kong, 17,000 chickens were killed and a 21 day ban on poultry trading was enforced after a bird was found to be infected.

The research could however be a double edged sword. The strain that has been created is potentially a weaponised virus and the US government is likely to do everything in its power to prevent this research getting in to the wrong hands. Publishing the documents introduces the risk of the mutated version being released by a rogue lab. On the other hand restricting the research could prevent the knowledge being used by research groups that could create a vaccine.

The academic, moral and legal arguments combined with the international nature of the dilemma and the colossal implications of the decision make the case particularly extraordinary so we’re unlikely to see a decision any time soon. Potentially this is time that could be used to make a vaccine so if the virus mutates all on it’s own it will be a cruel irony that it was human nature rather than mother mature that prevented us from making a vaccine.

What do I think? I’m not in a position to make that decision but my two cents would be that the decision should fall very far in one way or the other. There are countless examples of the Streisand Effect, which dictates that if information is suppressed it spreads much faster and further than it would if it wasn’t. Based on the examples we have already seen the fact that scientists want this data available and the US government doesn’t suggests that once the data is privately released, someone somewhere will inevitably leak it. If they are going to keep this secret, they are going to have to do it properly.

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