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Sunday, April 19, 2015   2:59 AM   |   73°F

Lab-bred bird flu research: bioterror threat?

An interesting article in the Times Picayune today discussed how the US government is requesting two major scientific publishers (Science and Nature) restrict details about the development of lab-bred bird flu in upcoming publications. The NIH funded research was conducted in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin, in order to study the epidemiology of H5N1 avian influenza.

“…In a statement, Science editor-in-chief Dr. Bruce Alberts said his journal “has concerns about withholding potentially important public health information from responsible influenza researchers” and was evaluating how best to proceed.

Nature’s editor-in-chief, Dr. Philip Campbell, called the recommendations unprecedented.

“It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers,” he said in a statement. The journal is discussing how “appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled.”

After review by the US government’s biosecurity advisers, the Department of Health and Human Services requested the two journals not publish the full genetic information of lab bred bird flu, fearing it could fall into the wrong hands.

You would think that due to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, governmental agencies can only request the journals restrict details, and not openly censor the published work. However, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (which publishes Science), there are several methods to restrict publication and dissemination of research: classification, export controls, and pre-publication review. “Pre-publication review is sometimes used as a condition for accepting research grants or contracts. These restrictions are usually narrowly-targeted, and do not apply to whole fields of research.”

The AAAS has a useful if dated Issue Brief explaining these methods of publication control in their document “Science and Security in the Post-9/11 Environment-Scientific Publication Policies” (2004), as well as a link to resources and primary documents related to the regulation of scientific information (which is not unprecedented…hello, atomic bomb!).

More Info
20 December 2011 Science press release
http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2011/1220herfst.shtml
20 December 2011 Nature News: “Fears grow over lab-bred flu”
http://www.nature.com/news/fears-grow-over-lab-bred-flu-1.9692