Freedom of information sharing is a right we take for granted in science. And in biomedical research we felt secure about that right, until this year. This is the year everything changed.
Information sharing is the subject of a new National Academies Press publication, just out and freely available at the link: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13295 . The experts debate the best methods to share information about surveillance of imagined cases of biological threats from potential terrorists. But at the same time, a debate over a very real threat closer to home hit the presses. It was a mutant virus, the kind that enters a living cell to make many copies of itself and go on to infect other cells, and other living hosts - similar to the blue viruses popping off the brown cell in the photo.
What was the defining moment that changed our freedom to publish research results? Science journal editors and the government recognized the risks of publishing studies of the new virus. These risks outweighed any gains they could imagine. Scientists have uncovered, created, or unleashed lethal powers in the past. Like dynamite explosives and nuclear power. But the new potentially lethal threat that brought in the regulators was a form of the simple flu.
Influenza virus that causes the flu comes in many varied forms. It mutates from year to year and can change who it infects - pigs, birds, or humans. New mutant influenza viruses combine different parts of old viruses to create new lethal strains. An example is the flu pandemic of 1918 , the “mother of all pandemics“. About one third of all people living in 1918 were infected all across the globe. And an estimated 50 million people died from the new lethal strain of influenza, at a time when the world population was 1.8 billion. Did you learn about the influenza pandemic of 1918 in school? I didn’t, but my grandmother who lived through it, had a deathly fear of flu.
When researchers announced they wanted to publish how they had created a new, lethal strain of H5N1 influenza infecting small mammals - ferrets - that was contagious to other ferrets, they got a strong stop signal. Ferrets today, people tomorrow? We don’t know, and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity doesn’t want the “wrong” people to find out, either. H5N1 is a type of influenza virus common in birds. To try and control it, people have killed hundreds of millions of birds. This virus is sometimes contagious from infected birds to people. In the 584 cases of H5N1 in people so far, 345 of the people died – usually within a few days, from the Feb 2012 tally at the World Health Organization. That is similar to the case fatality of the plague. A virus this lethal is considered a huge risk, if it becomes more contagious than it already is. Where is the new virus? So far, in the researchers hands, not in the environment.
The Advisory Board put out a short, clear explanation of the reasons they blocked parts of the new research report from publication, “Adaptations of Avian Flu Virus Are a Cause for Concern” at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/482153a.html online on January 31 2012. This is a well argued case, and states, “A pandemic, or the deliberate release of a transmissible highly pathogenic influenza A/H5N1 virus, would be an unimaginable catastrophe for which the world is currently inadequately prepared.”
And so the time has come to regulate biomedical research reporting. Physicists who work with atomic power, and molecular biologists who create recombinant DNA are used to regulations. Now biologists who work with infectious diseases must also consider the effect their creations can have on all of creation. The new rules will come from the government, from scientists, and from us the public over the coming months. Please comment, here, elsewhere, it’s a decision that we can all be involved in now.
Photo credit: Image from Wellcome Images http://cellimagelibrary.org/images/39465