Avian influenza drama

Avian influenza virus

I’m intrigued by the current goings-on regarding the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s request to the journals Nature and Science to redact/edit/censor key details of the methodology in some papers submitted on avian influenza. Some links to news stories here and here.

Normally, this would be a bizarre request, because the one of the key aspects of publishing scientific research is to present the methods in such a way that anyone else could replicate the study. Everything needs to be documented and transparent. That’s why methods sections of papers are usually rather meticulous, but also fairly boring. In this case, the request has been made to leave out or edit specific details on the basis that the knowledge may “fall into the wrong hands”, or be used as bioterrorism. Meanwhile, thousands of birds are being culled in Hong Kong, after avian influenza was detected in three wild birds. This highlights the seriousness with which avian influenza should be treated. Because of the request, and the seriousness of the subject material, the authors of the studies have agreed to the request and are editing their manuscripts to remove key details.

The request caused a bit of uproar for two reasons. Essentially, the point of publishing scientific research is so that everyone can see it. If details of methods are withheld, normally that’s grounds for the manuscript to be rejected. In this case, two of the most highly sought-after journals for scientific research are being asked to deliberately withhold key information regarding the conduct of the study, with the intent of making it un-replicable. If only certain members of the scientific community are able to know this information, how do we determine who gets to know it? It sounds like the makings of an influenza flu in-crowd. Apart from the awkward social connotations associated with in-crowds, I can’t really see much of a problem with this, as not everyone works on influenza anyway, so it’s irrelevant to most people. I don’t need to know all the details about how to genetically manipulate strains of maize to increase tolerance to frost, so what difference does it make if I don’t also know all the details about how to manipulate a flu virus to enable human-human aerosol transmission? The difference is that I can look up the former, but potentially, not the latter. But as I’m not a bioethicist, I’ll go no further on this.

The second reason pretty much boils down to: why the hell were they trying to make such a dangerous strain of influenza in the first place? There is no context to these studies, so it’s not a question that can be answered until the research is published and we can read it (or parts of it!) for ourselves. The two studies in question were both funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH)  so there must have been some reason for it. I’m not going to put on my tinfoil hat and think up conspiracies as to the purpose of the research. But intentionally developing a highly transmissible form of a highly virulent strain of influenza sounds a bit mad. Certainly, by observing how many mutations it takes to change the virus’s transmission ability would be very useful from the perspectives of virus surveillance and public health. But there’s no way of knowing how and when mutations like these might occur in situ.

This situation certainly has raised more questions than answers on how sensitive research should be handled in the public domain.

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