HERE’S WHAT you need to know: Since 1997, nearly 600 people have been infected with avian flu by direct exposure to infected birds. The fatality rate is 60 percent, but the spread of the disease was limited because it couldn’t be transmitted from human to human. Then, a group of Dutch and American flu researchers, working under a National Institutes of Health grant, discovered a way that it could happen.
Now, the science community is debating the extent to which details about the experiments that mutated the avian virus into something that transmits among, and therefore kills, humans should be published. A government board has asked science journals to curtail specifics about the research.
An academic squadron of intellectual-freedom advocates is shocked by the censorship request. But the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity isn’t just seeking to keep potentially destructive information out of the hands of potential terrorists; it’s trying to cajole the scientific community into policing itself. Asking scientists to monitor their own publications is the equivalent of the alcohol industry’s “Drink Responsibly’’ campaign.
Though it would take more than reading a journal article to start infecting humans with the avian flu, any unsupervised research could start a chain of events that would lead to people being infected. The resulting virus could make the 1917 pandemic, which killed 62 million people, seem quaint by comparison.
This is clearly no joke, and the most shocking aspect of this story is why the government funded the research without some agreement beforehand that the details would remain classified. The level of concern led to a gentlemen’s agreement among Western nations that they would not comment on the research. Intelligence communities are frantically trying to replicate the mutation to determine how easy it would be for nefarious actors to use it as a weapon. This week, the UN’s World Health Organization chimed in that it is “deeply concerned’’ by the research. That’s diplomat-speak for “we’re freaking out here.’’
And, for the first time ever, the biosecurity board requested that any peer-reviewed journal redact specifics on how the scientists did it. Editors from the influential Nature and Science magazines have some qualms. Bruce Alberts, the editor of Science, said he “has concerns about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers.’’
That’s a red herring. No one is asking the journals to ignore the findings. Nor are they asking the scientists to refuse to share important research with other accredited scientists. Nor is there even a clamor to end government funding of such projects.
Indeed, the board is made up of scientists and has no enforcement power. The government does, and the board’s position should be seen as a plea to the journals to avoid a showdown with national-security officials who are understandably concerned with biological weapons. The absence of a globally enforceable Biological Weapons Convention (the United States withdrew its support in 2001) means that each nation, individually, must monitor itself.
The recommendation to the journals is less about censoring and more about setting a marker for the future. Censorship happens all the time; an entire security classification system exists, however flawed, to protect national security secrets. The board is well aware that the experiment’s details may trickle out; it is well aware that scientists are a competitive bunch and that labs throughout the world are now trying to do the same thing; it is well aware that government attempts at scientific censorship have failed miserably in the past.
But it is promoting a standard of responsibility that would have been lost if it remained silent, or even had promoted publication. Think of biological research security not as a strict prohibition, since viral studies have both good and nefarious purposes, but as a web of different defenses. This web includes the security surrounding these bio-labs, vigorous protections against release or loss of biological materials, and personnel evaluations. None of these approaches is flawless, but together, they decrease the chances that things will go terribly awry.
We know the Pandora’s box of the avian flu can surely can be opened, but why make it so easy by publishing the details? And that is exactly what the board must be calculating. No advancement in science stays hidden for too long. With a wink and a nod, the board is simply requesting that the journals drink responsibly. It’s censorship, yes, but of the most humane kind.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem