Science ethics

Scientists weigh terror threat against public health in publishing dilemma

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail

Vials of H5N1 flu vaccine by Beijing-based drug maker Sinovac Biotech Ltd. are seen during production at Sinovac facilities in Beijing, Nov.24, 2011. (Andy Wong/Andy Wong/AP)

There needs to be an international body involving scientists and security experts to provide advice on how to share, and when to hold back, the publication of research that could aide terrorists, says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science magazine.

Dr. Alberts, whose journal has been delaying publication of a paper on a laboratory-created form of the H5N1 bird flu, made his comments shortly after the World Health Organization said it needed more time to decide whether the controversial new research should be published in full.

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The leading journals of Science and Nature have both been holding back on publishing two separate research papers on bird flu because of concerns raised by the U.S. National Security Advisory Board for Biotechnology. But Dr. Alberts has been calling for a way in which the unredacted research could be provided to responsible scientists, so that the international influenza research community can prepare for the possibility of an avian influenza pandemic.

In Geneva, the WHO issued a statement on Friday saying essentially that it needs more time to decide if there is a way for the research to be published in full, without raising security risks.

“There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies. However, there are significant public concerns surrounding this research that should first be addressed,” Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of health security for the WHO, said in a statement Friday.

The WHO called for further delay in publishing the manuscripts while discussion on the topic continues.

Dr. Alberts – speaking at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, now under way in Vancouver – said he agrees with the delay, but doesn’t want it to go on indefinitely, because scientists need the information to advance their research.

“I don’t think it would be in anybody’s interest [to delay a decision for years]because the bird flu population is evolving,” he said.

Given time, he said, the virus created in the lab might develop naturally. Because of that, Dr. Alberts said he comes down “on the side of publication being more protective [to public health]than helpful to terrorism.”

But he said Science accepted the NSABB’s request to delay publication because he respects that advisory body, which is made up of both scientists and security experts.

“If you just have scientists in the room and no security people, it’s not enough, because … what do we [scientists]know about the ease with which al-Qaeda, for example, could actually produce this thing?” Dr. Alberts said. “Now we have a situation where the international community is involved,” he said, referring to the WHO deliberations. “The very best possible outcome for this from my perspective is to have the establishment of an international version of the NSABB.”

And Dr. Alberts said he hopes a way can be found to publish the research information, so that scientists can start work on developing vaccines for the various forms of H5N1.

“[The vaccine research]might get done eventually in a classified laboratory somewhere, but that’s a very slow process. So from the standpoint of advancing knowledge that helps us to defend ourselves against future pandemics, open publishing has got many advantages,” he said.

The WHO convened a meeting this week in Geneva to discuss the issue after two research groups, one in the Netherlands and the other in the United States, created versions of the H5N1 virus that can spread easily among humans. The security concern is that terrorists could take that research and use it to develop a biological weapon that could create a global pandemic.

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