U.S. Biosecurity Panel May Call for Asilomar-Style Moratorium on H5N1 Papers

23 December 2011 1:10 pm

The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which has asked scientists and journals to redact key details in two explosive influenza papers, is also considering a call for a voluntary broader moratorium on the publication of similar studies while an international debate is held to discuss how the field should proceed.

Under such a moratorium, influenza researchers would agree not to publish studies about the transmissibility of the H5N1 avian influenza strain in mammals and not to present data on such studies at scientific meetings.

NSABB chair Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff told ScienceInsider that he believes the gravity of the situation demands a thorough international consultation about the risks and benefits of such studies before more results are made public. "This is an Asilomar moment," he says, referring to a 1975 meeting in Asilomar, California, where, after voluntarily halting research, scientists drew up safety guidelines for working with the then-nascent recombinant DNA technology.

The idea of a voluntary moratorium is mentioned in an NSABB policy statement that Keim says has been sent to Nature and Science, where the two controversial papers are under review; he hopes the journals will print it along with the papers. Keim says he is in favor of a moratorium himself, but that the board has not yet voted on it. "We try to avoid calling it a moratorium, but that's what it would be," he adds.

Unlike Asilomar, the moratorium would most likely be on publishing the data, not on conducting the research itself, Keim says. It would last "maybe 3 months" and would not affect other types of influenza research. Studies of the genetic changes that make the H5N1 virus more transmissible in mammals—including the two papers now under review by Nature and Science—are "in a category of their own," Keim says, because of the pandemic risk and H5N1's fatality rate in humans, which appears to be very high.

Keim says that other research groups are already performing similar studies and that more results are likely to appear soon; indeed, one paper, by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, caught the panel by surprise during its deliberations when it was published online by the journal Virology a few weeks ago. (In that study, researchers made changes to the H5N1's hemagglutinin gene that made the virus more easily transmissible between ferrets, but not nearly to the extent that one of the teams that NSABB has asked to redact results says it has witnessed.)

"We know there is a lot of stuff out there," says Keim, "so I think it's important that we have some sort of cessation of communication in this area."

NSABB has set up a special working group with an "aggressive agenda" to figure out how to set up an international debate, which would also involve the World Health Organization (WHO). "Our biggest fear is that this will be seen as the U.S. telling the world what to do," he adds.

WHO would be the "only place where this could find a credible home," says Edward Hammond, an activist in Austin, Texas, who has closely tracked WHO debates about smallpox research and the sharing of flu strains' genetic sequences. But the organization will be loath to take on another tricky issue, Hammond predicts; in the past, member countries like Brazil and Iran have strongly objected to WHO involvement in security matters. A formal WHO involvement could also take years, says Hammond; within a few months, "you can't do much more than bring a group of people together and make them produce a statement."

Whether influenza scientists will accept further limits on their scientific freedom—even temporarily—remains to be seen. In the past few days, NSABB's recommendations have triggered fierce debates among virologists. The lead scientist on one of the teams, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, omitted key data from his H5N1 study when he presented it at a September meeting in Malta because the issue was still under debate, but he strongly believes that in the interest of public health, the information should be made public—and that it will eventually leak out anyway. (Fouchier could not be reached for comment today.)

"I think the scientists and the journals will agree" to the idea, "perhaps reluctantly," says Keim. "A short-term moratorium will only have a small impact on the research process, and hopefully we can develop a broad consensus on where to go—just like they did in Asilomar."

* This item has been corrected. The story originally said that NSABB "calls" for a moratorium and that the call "will be" in the policy statement sent to Nature and Science. After the story was published, Keim contacted ScienceInsider to say that the statement mentions the possibility of a moratorium, and that he is in favor of one, but that the full board has not yet made such a recommendation and will consider it in the weeks ahead. "I am sorry if I have miscommunicated with you on this," Keim added. The story and its headline have been edited to reflect this information.

Posted In: