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21 Dec 2011 08:35 PM

Virus with potential for bioterrorism created – Experts worried


By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Two major scientific journals are debating on whether to publish details of a man-made mutant flu virus that could kill billions, after a US government's science advisory committee advised them to withhold key details.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) urged the US journal Science and the British journal Nature to withhold key details so people seeking to harm the public would not be able to manufacture the virus that could cause mass deaths.

The virus in question is an H5N1 bird flu strain that was genetically altered in a Dutch lab so it can pass easily between ferrets. Thus it could be contagious among humans for the first time, and could trigger a lethal pandemic if it emerged in nature or were set loose by terrorists, experts say.

One of the scientists behind the H5N1 research told Science his team would remove some details of their work from the manuscripts. But they disagreed with the NSABB's conclusions, virologist Albert Osterhaus of Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, told Science. “This is unprecedented,” he said, adding that the manuscript had been sent by Science to the NSABB for another review.

The lead scientist of the other research, which was submitted to Nature, has also agreed to adhere to NSABB's findings, a spokesman for his university said. Virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the US was working with Nature's editors to alter the manuscript, university spokesman Terry Devitt said. “We are doing our best to be as responsible as we can be,” Mr Devitt told Science.

The Dutch research team was led by Ron Fouchier at Rotterdam's Erasmus Medical Centre. The team said in September it had created a mutant version of the H5N1 bird flu virus that could for the first time be spread among mammals. Fouchier said his team had discovered that transmission of the virus was possible between humans “and can be carried out more easily than we thought”. One paper under consideration is by Fouchier's team, and the other is by a team of virologists at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Tokyo that reportedly showed similar results.

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza is fatal in 60 per cent of human cases but only 350 people have so far died from the disease, largely because it cannot, yet, be transmitted between humans.

Science and Nature said they were considering the US government's non-binding request.

The NSABB reviewed two scientific papers relating to the findings and recommended that the journals “make changes in the manuscripts”, a statement said, warning of an “extremely serious global public health threat”. “Due to the importance of the findings to the public health and research communities, the NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”

“At the same time, however, Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public health information from responsible influenza researchers,” editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts said. Scientists could benefit from knowing about the virus because it could help speed new treatments to combat this and other related lethal forms of influenza, he added. “Many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus,” Alberts wrote. “Science editors will be evaluating how best to proceed,” he added, asking for more clarification on how the government would make the information available to “all those responsible scientists who request it.” A spokeswoman for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science, said a decision was expected in two weeks.

Nature's editor-in-chief, Philip Campbell, said he was considering one of the two papers for publication and was in “active consultation” on the matter. “We have noted the unprecedented NSABB recommendations that would restrict public access to data and methods and recognize the motivation behind them,” he said. “It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers. We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled.”

Professor Wendy Barclay, Chair in Influenza Virology at Imperial College London, said the NSABB's report recommending restricted access to the studies was “very worrying”. “These experiments have prompted a welcome discussion about the work that we carry out as researchers, why we do it and how the information should reviewed and shared,” she said. “It is a very worrying idea that information from this type of work may be restricted to those that 'qualify' in some way to be allowed to share it. Who will qualify? How will this be decided? In the end is the likelihood of misuse outweighed by the danger of beginning a Big Brother society?”

Dr. David R. Franz, a biologist who formerly headed the Army defensive biological lab at Fort Detrick, Md., is a member of the board and said its decision to intervene, made in the fall, was quite reasonable. “My concern is that we don’t give amateurs — or terrorists — information that might let them do something that could really cause a lot of harm,” he said in an interview. “It’s a wake-up call,” Dr. Franz added. “We need to make sure that our best and most responsible scientists have the information they need to prepare us for whatever we might face.”

Dr. Amy P. Patterson, director of the office of biotechnology activities at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md., which oversees the board, said the recommendations were a first. “The board in the past has reviewed manuscripts but never before concluded that communications should be restricted in any way,” she said. “These two bodies of work stress the importance of public health preparedness to monitor this virus. We need to enhance our preparedness.”

Ronald M. Atlas, a microbiologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and past president of the American Society for Microbiology, who has advised the federal government on issues of germ terrorism, said the hard part of the recommendations would be creating a way to move forward in the research with a restricted set of responsible scientists. “If you understand the mechanisms, you can build defenses,” he said of research on how deadly viruses can spread. “That’s why the research is done and why it’s critical for public health.” Until Tuesday, he added, the standard method of virus researchers was “to get that information out as soon as possible so the scientific community can build those defenses. Now, however, we’re afraid this has crossed the line to where it’s easy to use. There’s danger, and you don’t want it freely out there.”

NSABB chair Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist, told the AAAS Science Insider report last month that he had huge concerns about the potential havoc the man-made virus could unleash.

“I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” Keim was quoted as saying. “I don't think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”

Given that some of the information has already been presented openly at scientific meetings, and that articles about it have been sent out to other researchers for review, experts acknowledged that it may not be possible to keep cover on the potentially dangerous details. “But I think there will be a culture of responsibility here,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “At least I hope there will.”

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