Science Wins Out: Studies NSABB Attempted to Censor Published, Fears Unfounded


CDC high-speed photograph of droplets spread by a sneeze.

Back in December, a US government panel took the highly controversial position of calling for the censoring of scientific work aimed at an understanding of how the H5N1 “bird flu” virus can change to become directly transmissible between humans. The virus is deadly to humans but can not be spread from one person to another. Instead, close contact with infected birds is required for humans to be infected. The work which the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (which, as described in the Washington Post article linked above, “was created after the anthrax bioterrorism attacks of 2001”) wanted to censor involved experiments aimed at understanding precisely what changes in the virus would be required for it to retain its lethality while also becoming directly transmissible between humans through processes such as the sneeze caught in the disgusting high-speed photo from CDC seen here.

After a very long delay, the first of the two delayed papers was published in Nature last month. Now, the second paper has been published in Science, where the journal has taken the unusual step of dedicating an entire issue to the single topic of the H5N1 virus and has removed the subscription requirements for access.

It turns out that the fearmongering by the NSABB was entirely unfounded. The Washington Post repeated the fear back in December:

Scientists seeking to fight future pandemics have created a variety of “bird flu” potentially so dangerous that a federal advisory panel has for the first time asked two science journals to hold back on publishing details of research.

In the experiments, university-based scientists in the Netherlands and Wisconsin created a version of the so-called H5N1 influenza virus that is highly lethal and easily transmissible between ferrets, the lab animals that most closely mirror human beings in flu research.

The problem is that once the details of the experiments and their results were released, the viruses produced by both of the independent laboratories by different processes lost their lethality as they became transmissible between ferrets, which were used as a model of transmission among humans. It turns out then, that the feared “supervirus” which the NSABB was assuming had been created did not even exist, so the “risk” from publishing details of how one could create it was totally unfounded.

From the New York Times:

As the virus became more contagious, it lost lethality. It did not kill the ferrets that caught it through airborne transmission, but it did kill when high doses were squirted into the animals’ nostrils.

Dr. Fouchier’s work proved that H5N1 need not mix with a more contagious virus to become more contagious.

By contrast, the lead author of the other bird flu paper, Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, took the H5N1 spike gene and grafted it onto the 2009 H1N1 swine flu. One four-mutation strain of the mongrel virus he produced infected ferrets that breathed in droplets, but did not kill any.

The editor of Science, Professor Bruce Alberts, says in commentary accompanying the publication of the special issue:

Breakthroughs in science often occur when a scientist with a unique perspective combines prior knowledge in novel ways to create new knowledge, and the publication of the two research Reports in this issue will hopefully help to stimulate the innovation needed, perhaps from unsuspected sources, to make the world safer.

It should be kept in mind that the whole point of this research has been that in understanding how a lethal virus could be spread, there likely will come an understanding of what approaches will be useful in counteracting its spread. That is what Alberts is talking about in his words about the innovation needed to make the world safer. It also is what I was talking about when I called for full publication of the work back in December:

 Full publication of the bird flu virus work is essential for us to have the best possible chance for effective treatment if and when such a pathogenic version evolves in the wild.

Ironically, because the details presented in these two papers do not create a lethal virus that can spread among humans, they do not constitute the “recipe” for a weapon of mass destruction that the fear-mongers cited in calling for the censorship and delay to publication of the work. That detail is less relevant to research in the world of prevention, though, so the net result of this exercise in moving the government’s nanny state into supervision of the publication of scientific work has been to delay the publication of details that may be important in developing the next tool against a deadly virus pandemic.

Sadly, despite his welcome move in removing the subscription requirement for the special issue of Science and his good words on the unexpected nature of where breakthroughs arise, Alberts also endorses the NSABB model and the caste system it would develop for who can and who can not be allowed access to certain scientific advances. From his commentary:

As described in News and Commentary pieces in this special section, the prolonged controversy has also provided a “stress test” of the systems that had been established to enable the biological sciences to deal with “dual-use research of concern” (DURC): biological research with legitimate scientific purposes that may be misused to pose a biologic threat to public health and/or national security. One centerpiece of this system is the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). Science strongly supports the NSABB mechanism, which clearly needs to be supplemented and further strengthened to deal with the inevitable future cases of publication of dual-use research, both before and after their submission to journals. Still missing is a comprehensive international system for assessing and handling DURC—one that provides access, for those with a need to know, to any information deemed not to be freely publishable.

Establishing a “need to know” system for access to scientific work is anethema to the concept Alberts acknowledged in his comments about innovation from unsuspected sources. Although scientific freedom won out in the battle over the H5N1 virus, the movement to provide a mechanism for stifling publication of scientific work continues and more scientists are likely to see their important work delayed by posturing regulators who wish to win favor with fearmongers in government.

Scientific work carried out at the basic level needs to be freely published. Detailed, applied work describing how to create a bioweapon of course should not be published, but such work is illegal anyway and should not be carried out. The work which the NSABB tried to censor in this case falls far short of such weapons-based work and never should have been subject to the delays created.

15 replies
  1. ondelette says:

    Scientific work carried out at the basic level needs to be freely published. Detailed, applied work describing how to create a bioweapon of course should not be published, but such work is illegal anyway and should not be carried out.

    Hunh? I think that what you’re describing, and the debate that went on, are characteristic of the fact that people differ on what you mean by the distinction between these two. Otherwise there would have been no debate. To use words like “of course” and reduce it to this dichotomy belies the fact that people draw this line at different places, and that’s what the whole debate was about in the first place.

    Fortunately, those debating on the paranoid side were wrong. In the one case I was involved in many years ago, it also seemed quite clear, but across campus, it didn’t to one grad student until she ended up in the hospital for anthrax and the whole campus erupted in rumor, scandal, and paranoia.

  2. matt carmody says:

    I was 26 years old when the great swine flu threat drove people to get flu shots as if the world was facing extinction. I never got one. When I saw how many people got sick and that quite a few actually died, I resolved never to get a flu shot. Instead, I educated myself on viruses, their transmission, the chances of zoonotic events, and have remained healthy throughout the past 35 years.
    Whenever I hear reports of a threat from a virus, the first thing I ask myself is, “Who’s gonna make money from this event?” The last thing the government and the drug industry have in mind is making sure the little guy is safe.

  3. bsbafflesbrains says:

    @matt carmody: Exactly on point. Follow the money. We have become a nation of flim flam and the media and our government have become a propaganda arm of the Corporatocracy. As Pynchon said “We are the United States of Fear” controlled by the people who make the most money off peddling fear.

  4. Jim White says:

    For what it’s worth, I get a flu vaccination every year. My lungs aren’t that great, so I really don’t want an influenza virus of any sort coursing through them.

  5. chetnolian says:

    The NSABB implied the very papers that now show there was no super-virus did just that. So either they were lying (no!) or they had not read them. Which is it?

    And the most important words in the Professor Alberts’s piece are “Still missing is a comprehensive international system..” The most outrageous part of the NSABB attempted veto was that it was going to apply to international science. Yet again the USA seems to forget there is a world out there.

  6. lefty665 says:


    “Detailed, applied work describing how to create a bioweapon of course should not be published, but such work is illegal anyway and should not be carried out.”

    “people draw this line at different places, and that’s what the whole debate was about in the first place.”

    Thank you ondelette, nice framing. As you and Jim note, the decision in the end was the right one.

    It’s my understanding the ferret work was old fashioned stuff. They got changes the same way viruses do in the wild, by passing through a lot of critters. When they got a mutation that enabled easy transmission of an unusually deadly virus using the same methods mother nature uses it was scary.

    So, should descriptions of traditional natural virology methods be suppressed, or simple lab processes be criminalized and outlawed because they could be used to develop bio weapons? I don’t think so, nor do I think either you or Jim think so either. But, it is not a simple question.

    Viruses tend to get less virulent as they become more easily transmissible. Killing the host too quickly cuts down on the opportunity to replicate and the mutation may fail to thrive.

    Evolution keeps on, well, evolving. Just because researchers got the expected results this time is no guarantee for next time. Relief is very specific, it does not generalize or necessarily persist (see the ’18 flu). Odds are that the birds and pigs are cooking up especially nasty mutations, no lab required, even as we speak. Occasionally one thrives. As the Shadow almost said “Who knows what evil quirks”…

  7. lefty665 says:

    @Jim White:

    Me too, but if you look at the vaccine manufacturing process it will make you pause and redo the risk/benefit calculation. The decision each year on which strains to protect against is a crap shoot too.

  8. P J Evans says:

    In Science News, the story about this paper pointed out that the researchers have found similar mutations already exist in Egypt, which has a real problem with bird flu. So it isn’t like bird flu will only become transmissible through air because a lab does it – nature is, as usual, ahead of us.

    The story in the LA times had a headline and teaser that were very definitely on the scaremonger side of the line.

  9. quixote says:

    Yes, scientific research has to be done on the open source model. But as ondelette points out, the distinction between knowledge and weapons is not always clear. (My own research has been on plant evolution using molecular methods, so one of those useless and harmless fields where all these distinctions are academic.)

    Fearmongering click-worthy sensationalism in the mass media is stupid. But restraining publication of results until you’re pretty sure they can’t be used as a recipe for a weapon is actually a good idea. Coming up with new methodology to make a virus takes a lot of smarts. Following a recipe to make one is something anybody with a couple of undergraduate cellular and molecular biology courses could do. Possibly even a talented high school student with a good AP Bio class.

    The fact that nature is ahead of us is no argument. That doesn’t change how angry we’d all be if a human being unleashed an intentional plague from a lab.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that international methods for evaluating dual use research really are needed. And that it’s a good idea to evaluate DURC before release. And that if the US gov had ulterior motives for delaying publication (eg we want the bioweapons just for us!) then they should be jumped on. But not for the simple fact of delaying until the lack of potential for misuse was clear.

  10. P J Evans says:

    Well, if you read the stories that are not in the mass media,you find out that it wasn’t quick work, the ferrets survived, and, as I said, there are similar viral versions already out there in the real world.
    You can try to restrain information, but something like this would have been done in Germany or Japan or possibly Russia.

  11. ondelette says:

    @P J Evans:
    When I was in graduate school, the military wanted to fund us to improve the dispersal of chemical and neural gas. We refused, in no small part because the U.S. had recently ratified the 1925 treaty on chemical weapons. We were experts in the field which the military was requesting work done, and they could not have obtained the work elsewhere.

    It works both ways. You actually can restrain information. And in some cases, that means the information will not exist — at least for a while. I recently saw a paper on the topic, published in a journal. If the military wants the information now, there are new experts and it can field a new request for submissions, perhaps it already has. But 35 years has passed and the worm has turned on using nerve gas in battles, I doubt they could use it anymore.

    Did we save lives and keep people from dying horrible deaths? Don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But you’d have to be an idiot or a sociopath to believe that science should always march forward just because a problem is interesting and if you don’t do the work, somebody else will. Especially if you know that you are the only one who knows how to do it at the time.

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