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Fearing Bioterrorism, Government Panel Asks: What Research Should Be Secret?

December 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
How much research about the deadly bird flu virus should be available to the public? Ray Suarez discusses the question that many in the science, bioterrorism and national security fields are considering with Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Bruce Alberts of the journal Science.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, just how much research about a deadly flu virus should be made available to the public? It’s a question many are asking this week in the fields of science, bioterrorism and national security.

Ray Suarez has our own conversation on the subject, following some background.

RAY SUAREZ: Hong Kong, 1997, a virus that kills chickens and other fowl is seen for the first time in a major outbreak among humans. Since then, there have been several other occurrences of the H5N1 bird flu, mostly in Asia.

Overall, about 600 people have contracted the disease and more than half have died. The good news so far: The virus is hard to transmit from person to person. And health officials have been largely able to contain outbreaks.

ACTOR: On day one, there were two people, and then four, and then 16.

ACTRESS: Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone. Stay away from other people.

RAY SUAREZ: In the popular imagination and in films like this year’s “Contagion,” viruses mutate and multiply relentlessly through the population.

In fact, scientists have looked into whether something like that could happen with avian flu, in part to better understand how it might be combated. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands were able to create a highly transmissible form of the virus in ferrets.

But, this week, in an unprecedented step, a government panel that reports to the National Institutes of Health and other agencies called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked prominent journals “Science” and “Nature” not to publish some of the details of the biological experiments, recommending that: “The general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”

The question of publishing all the details of the studies has stoked a debate over balancing the need for open scientific dialogue and concerns about national security.

We look at those questions now with two principal players in this story. Dr. Anthony Fauci is the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. His institute co-funded some of the research. And he speaks on behalf of the NIH tonight. And Bruce Alberts is the editor in chief of the journal “Science,” deciding what to publish and not publish about this research.

Dr. Fauci, let me start with you.

Has an arm of the federal government ever asked scientists not to publish the fruits of their research?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: In the biological scientists — sciences, this truly, Ray, is — it’s a new paradigm. It’s unprecedented. So we have really got to get it right.

I mean, there’s an absolute need to do kinds of research that will help protect the general and global public, but there are times, as is the case now, where the results, if gotten into the hands of people with nefarious purposes, could, in fact, be dangerous to society.

So we need to strike a balance, an appropriate balance of not impeding the science, but at the same time protecting the general public, who has concerns over the possibility that information like this may get into the hands of people who would use it for nefarious purposes.

But the answer to your question is, this is the first time — and this advisory board that you mentioned, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity made the recommendation to the Health and Human Services Department and to the authors and the journal editors to publish the data, but to leave out the details that would allow people who might use it for purposes that are not purposes for the public health, but nefarious purposes.

They would not have ready access to this. But, also, it’s important to point out that the scientists and public health officials, particularly those who are surveying and looking at this virus, particularly in Southeast Asia, have access to the information at its fullest.

And that’s really the discussion right now, is, how do we do that? How do we — how do we get that delicate balance between open scientific intercourse, as well as safety of the general public?

RAY SUAREZ: And that question, I guess, Bruce Alberts, lands in your lap. This is a request. They can’t make you not publish it. How do you walk that line between what can be released and what should be released?

BRUCE ALBERTS, “Science”: Well, it’s a great question, Ray. It’s what we’ve been struggling with.

Science flourishes because of its openness and the ability of other scientists to reproduce and build on results. But, in this case, this very distinguished advisory board, which I should point out is — was set up on the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences shortly after 9/11 and contains outstanding scientists, as well as security experts, this is the first time — after looking at many other cases over the past seven years, this is the first time they came down on this side of the decision, that is, to restrict some of the information.

So, first thing, I think, as the Supreme Court, so to speak, of this decision-making process, the journals should try very hard to comply with their request. On the other hand, we have to make sure that they have the means — and we’re waiting for them to demonstrate that — they have the means to get this information for those in Asia and elsewhere around the world who have a real need to know the details.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Fauci, this is specialist information going out to a pretty selective reading audience. Could a paper on lab work with viruses really be useful to someone who wants to create a superbug?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, if you have the mutations that are associated with easy transmissibility from animal to animal, in this case ferrets, as you mentioned, Ray, as well as maintaining its virulence or its lethality, someone with a degree of expertise — it’s not somebody that’s going to do this in their backyard — but you don’t want to have the blueprints for that be out for individuals who might have nefarious purposes.

But, as Dr. Alberts mentioned very appropriately, the entire basis of the scientific enterprise is to share information, so that others can verify it and go to the next step, so that the ultimate public health good will be attained. So, that’s the balance that we are dealing with.

But information such as this could possibly — and I say possibly. There’s not — remember now, we’re dealing with an animal model. And in an abundance of caution, the advisory board made the recommendation to withhold this information.

And I think what people need to know, there’s no guarantee whatsoever that this virus as it exists would be transmitted. But it has characteristics in a mammal model that is the closest we get to a human model, not a perfect model, but as close as you get.

It does maintain and develop these characteristics, which are of concern if the ability to make such a virus gets into the hands of people who would use it for nefarious purposes.

RAY SUAREZ: Bruce Alberts, you heard Dr. Fauci’s misgivings. Do you think someone reading your magazine could figure out how to create a superbug if they didn’t already know how to do it?

BRUCE ALBERTS: Hopefully not. That’s what we’re dealing with. We don’t want to put the information that’s very useful to terrorist organizations into the public if we can be convinced that the people who need to know that information will have it.

To me, this experiment which scientists say had very surprising results — it wasn’t thought to be so easy to do this. And, you know, a small — a relatively small number of mutations apparently will allow this flu virus to become transmissible through the air, through aerosols. And that could cause an enormous pandemic in a human population.

So, to me, this work was important to do. And it has a major message, which is, we have to do even more than we’re now doing protect the world against this virus. Flu — I have been on many programs in the last few days talking to flu experts. And many of them feel that this is by far the greatest threat to our public health from infectious diseases.

And I think this is a call to action by scientists, even scientists who have never worked with flu, to work even harder and more effectively on protecting the public.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, quickly, before we go, I will ask you both, gentlemen, first you, Anthony Fauci, whether, now that this is done, can the information that’s been derived from this research be given to those who really need it, who are combating dangerous flu viruses, without it gradually seeping out into a wider world?

Information doesn’t seem to be like that in 2011.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: That is a concern, Ray.

Very clearly, when things get out there, there certainly is a possibility, if not a likelihood, that, sooner or later, this is information that’s going to get out. In fact, you know, in innocence, not thinking that this would be voted to be held down by the board, the investigators actually made a partial presentation of the data at a meeting outside of the country, a regular scientific meeting of exchange of information.

So, although we will try our best to get to that balance that Dr. Alberts and I have been speaking at, there’s no guarantee that, when information gets passed back and forth to scientists, even those who have a need to know, that it might actually ultimately leak out, because, as we know from experience in other disciplines, it is very, very difficult to keep something secret when it’s information.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, Bruce Alberts, same question. Can you keep information bottled up?

BRUCE ALBERTS: Not — not forever, for sure, and this will leak out eventually.

And I think this is a wakeup call to the scientific and health communities to be more prepared than we are today for such outbreaks. And I would like to make sure that we focus on that going forward.

RAY SUAREZ: Bruce Alberts, Anthony Fauci, gentlemen, thank you both.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: You’re welcome.

BRUCE ALBERTS: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s Science Thursday on the NewsHour online. Winter is now officially upon us. And, online, you will find a story about, yes, the science of snowflake formation, complete with a snowflake slide show. That’s on our website.