Bird flu and swine flu are old news, right? There was a lot of hype but neither became the world-ending pandemic they might have been. Swine flu was certainly very good at spreading, but had a low mortality rate of 0.01% according to WHO data from August 2009 and most people suffered symptoms little worse than seasonal flu. By contrast, avian flu (which nine people have died from so far in 2012) has a very high mortality rate but is nearly always due to direct bird-to-human transmission from time spent around infected poultry, and cannot easily pass to another human once caught.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, the surface proteins on influenza viruses mutate and change shape fast enough that seasonal flu vaccines become ineffective after only a few years. Despite possessing the ability to sequence a virus genome easily, the interactions with host cells is complex enough that scientists still understand little about what makes a given type or subtype of influenza dangerous to humans.
This knowledge was something to which virologists at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, were hoping to contribute.
They were studying which mutations of the avian flu virus would cause it to become directly transmissible between ferrets. This is potentially useful because ferrets are a reasonable (if imperfect) model of how human bodies react to viruses. An understanding of exactly what gives certain forms of influenza deadly and/or highly transmissible between mammals, especially humans, we will be better prepared to make drugs and vaccines in advance which are equipped to deal with those strains in particular. This was the motivation behind the experiments.
In an unprecedented move, US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) advised that if the papers were to be published, they must withhold certain vital experimental details for fear “that terrorists or hostile nations could learn how to cause a pandemic”. The results and discussion would still be published, but the exact method will be held back.
This goes totally against the general status quo of scientific publishing. As it currently stands, in order to get research peer-reviewed and published, scientists must provide fine details about how they obtained their results – such as describing materials, cell types or chemicals they used and in what quantities. You can see this by looking for the “Methods and Materials” section of any scientific paper .
This is seen as fundamental because it means that any lab anywhere in the world with the right equipment can test previous hypotheses by reproducing the experiments to verify or dispute, and generally build upon. This is how progress is made in the scientific world.
The actual results of the paper seem to have been blown out of proportion somewhat, and there is confusion surrounding quotes from Fouchier, lead author of one of the papers in question, on how deadly the transmitted viruses actually was to the ferrets, exacerbated by the lack of original data available. Even if this particular set of experiments is indeed fairly inconsequential to human health, as some claim, it has brought censorship of publications to the academic table.
This has raised the inevitable “where to draw the line” questions. Which infectious diseases would be counted, and what type of research? How much information needs to be withdrawn? What would one need to do, or who would one need to be, in order to access the censored information?
The authors are currently in a voluntarily 60-day hiatus of the research while discussion into these matters continues.
As I see it, we do not currently know nearly enough about how flu mutations alter the viruses’ effect on our health. Knowledge really is power here, for the more we know about these diseases and the freer the flow of information, the sooner we can find successful drugs and vaccines and the better we can prepare for pandemics.
Any system which seeks to actively withhold scientific information should certainly not be entered into lightly. We are dealing with important research concerning viruses capable of causing death to millions of people all over the world which we must be ready for. There really is no way of testing the mutant virus on humans rather than ferrets, so perhaps a better-safe-than-sorry approach should be taken, where experimental information is available on a needs-to-know basis.
As someone who values freedom of information so highly, I’m a little surprised by my decision to support something which could be regarded as censorship. However in these circumstances, I do not regard it as suppressive. It is imperative that the research goes on, but withheld information may always be released at a later date, perhaps if a suitably effective vaccine is developed. Meanwhile released (or leaked, I must add) information is released forever.
Emily Coyte is a recent graduate of Biochemistry at the University of Bristol