< Two Science Journals Asked to Redact an Article

Transcript

Friday, December 23, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

This week the government advisory board overseen by the National Institutes of Health asked the journals Science and Nature to redact some of the details of a new study about the bird flu virus. The study was about an easily transmitted form of the virus, a strain created by scientists in the U.S. and the Netherlands.

The virus, first detected back in 1997, is not typically spread from person to person, but the public health community is worried that it might mutate to a form that could quickly spread. That's why this research was undertaken and paid for by the U.S. government, to learn more about the disease, to know the enemy, to better prepare for a potential pandemic.

But there's another worry, and that's the reason the advisory board is requesting a partial media blackout on the details, and that's the possibility that in the wrong hands the research could be used to cause a pandemic.

Bruce Alberts, the editor in chief of Science, one of the journals cooperating with that request, says his publication is taking the Board's concerns very seriously.

BRUCE ALBERTS:

I think the primary worry is terrorist organizations, and possibly even rogue scientists in a facility, as we think happened with the anthrax scare.

BOB GARFIELD:

If the results of this kind of research could yield such calamity, why were scientists engaged in the research to begin with?

BRUCE ALBERTS:

The goal was to discover, in places where this bird flu virus exists, like Indonesia and China, how easy it would be in nature, not in the lab, to mutate to a form that could cause a severe human pandemic. And the answer was surprisingly much easier than anybody thought.

BOB GARFIELD:

The researchers did not enter into this lightly. There is a specific public health reason for understanding how these viruses can quickly mutate.

BRUCE ALBERTS:

The fact is that this bird flu, when it does transmit to humans, is incredibly lethal; more than half the people die. Lucky for us, [LAUGHS] this virus does not spread in aerosols. That is, you know, somebody sneezes, the virus goes in the air. Many flu viruses survive in air long enough for other people to breathe it in and get the flu. That's why it's such a dangerous disease and that's why it spreads better than almost any other virus.

These experiments explicitly were asking how difficult is it to create the bird flu virus in a form that will survive in air and, therefore, presumably be enormously easily spread through humanity.

BOB GARFIELD:

So it is not beyond the realm of possibility  that using published research of this sort would give bad guys the formula they need to create unimaginable mischief.

BRUCE ALBERTS:

That’s the belief of the National Security Advisory Board for Bio Security which has recommended that we only publish the paper without critical details.

The Advisory Board, the NSABB, has been in existence since 2004, has looked at the number of different situations like this. In every case it’s ruled in the other direction, that open publication would be the best route to protect us in the future, despite the small chances of terrorists or others getting ahold of this information. This is the very first time they've ruled in the other side, that, in fact, we should restrict some of the details to those people who have a need to know.

BOB GARFIELD:

It's not quite censorship; it's voluntary. And you said, okay, we volunteer. What won't you be including in the published article?

BRUCE ALBERTS:

We’re not to include the recipe on how to make this thing, you know, how exactly to produce it, and we’re not to include the exact results, that is, what mutations were needed to change the virus to the form that is thought to be truly dangerous to humans. So those details will be omitted from the publication, assuming that the government convinces us that they have a mechanism to get that same information out to those who really need it to protect us.

This is not just anybody. I mean, and just ‘cause you’re a virologist and you want to know it is not enough. The NIH and HHS and others in the government are processing a draft agreement on how this will be done, and that's what we’re waiting to see.

BOB GARFIELD:

I know that it's hard for one person to keep a secret. When you start talking about hundreds of approved scientists and their laboratory employees, is there any chance under the sun that this genetic sequencing and recipe can remain closely held?

BRUCE ALBERTS:

I mean, look at atomic weapons, you know? You can't keep any secret [LAUGHS], as far as I can see, forever. And our hope is that by that time we will have designed defenses against this particular virus, both drugs and new kinds of immunizations.

BOB GARFIELD:

I certainly understand why you are cooperating with the government's request, but are there circumstances under which you would say to the government, sorry, no we're gonna publish, and here's why?

BRUCE ALBERTS:

Here's why, is if they can't figure a way to get this information to those people in Indonesia, China and elsewhere who absolutely need this information.

The biggest disaster to me would be if we do not publish this information and, and six months from now a pandemic strain of flu virus originating from bird flu arises in Indonesia, starts spreading, kills huge numbers of Indonesians and, of course, will spread around the world.

We have to do everything we can to provide the knowledge to those who need to prevent that kind of occurrence. It's only a matter of time, so we have to prepare ourselves.

BOB GARFIELD:

Well, I'm not going to be intimate with a sneezing chicken until this whole thing blows over. [LAUGHING]

BRUCE ALBERTS:

[LAUGHS]  This has raised a whole new question in my mind:  Do chickens sneeze? [LAUGHS]

          [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD:

[LAUGHS] Bruce, thank you very much.

BRUCE ALBERTS:

Oh, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

BOB GARFIELD:

Bruce Alberts is the editor of the journal, Science.