By Richard Asinof
WASHINGTON – The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a government advisory panel, has asked two journals, Science and Nature, to keep certain details out of published reports about research on the creation of easily transmitted airborne version of the avian flu virus that does not normally spread from person to person.
The research on the lethal A (H5N1) virus, known as bird flu, was conducted both in the United States and at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam in The Netherlands,
The board’s request has ignited a contentious debate among scientists and researchers. On one side is Dr. David R. Franz, a member of the panel and a biologist who formerly headed the Army defensive biological lab at Fort Detrick, Md. “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 with The New York Times.
Others have expressed concern about the reasoning of the experiment itself – taking the naturally occurring bird flu and giving it the ability to spread from person to person – raises fears that it could cause one of the deadliest flu pandemics in history.
But Dr. Ron Fouchier, a virologist who headed the research team in Rotterdam, argued that if scientists can make the virus more transmissible in the lab, then it can also happen in nature. Knowing the risk is real – and knowing which mutations lead to transmissibility should help scientists around the world to recognize if and when a circulating strain starts to develop pandemic potential, he told The New York Times.
Dr. Anne S. De Groot, director of the Institute for Immunology and Informatics at the University of Rhode Island, the GAIA Vaccine Foundation and the Clinica Esperanza/Hope Clinic, said in response to the controversy: “ I think the best way to combat terrorism is not to repress information but to create global conditions that promote democracy, egalitarianism, and freedom of speech.” Education, not disinformation, she continued. “[I think that] Nature and Science should publish, and the government should spend less time censoring scientific articles and more time working to build world where every human being has an opportunity to thrive, not just those at the top of the heap,” De Groot said.