Imagine this, our worst nightmare becomes our reality: as anticipated, the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus that kills most people it infects has acquired the ability to transmit easily from bird to human and then from human to human and has reached pandemic proportions. But, the origin of the outbreak isn’t a naturally evolved strain, but one created in a research lab, with all the best intentions.

This is not the plot for a new movie, but a real threat the US goverment says it is currently trying to avert when this week it asked scientists who have recently created a strain of H5N1 avian influenza that transmits easily in ferrets (whose response to flu is remarkably similar to ours) not to reveal all of its genetic blueprint when they publish the result of their studies.

But, the move has heated up the debate about where you draw such a line, since, while no-one wants bio-terrorists to get hold of such a recipe, if researchers can’t pool their knowledge then we hamper their ability to give us the best chance of averting or surviving a pandemic of a flu with a high kill rate.

According to a statement from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released on Tuesday 20 December, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an independent committee of experts that advises various US government departments and federal agencies, recently completed a review of two unpublished studies describing research on the transmissibility of H5N1 that was funded by the NIH.

The studies, one from Europe and one from the US, describe how researchers genetically engineered strains of H5N1 with enhanced capacity to spread in animals, in order to assess how easy it would be for the naturally occurring virus to mutate into easily transmissible forms. And they concluded that contrary to current thinking, the virus has a greater potential to “gain a dangerous capacity to be transmitted among mammals, including perhaps humans” than we thought.

The studies also describe some of the genetic changes that would have to take place for the virus to realize this potential.

Following their review, the NSABB recommended that the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asks the study authors and the editors of the two journals that the studies are due to be published in, Science and Nature, make changes to their manuscripts such that, as the NIH statement reports:

“… the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”

They also recommended that the study reports include more information on the goals and the public health benefits of the research, and the extensive health and safety measures that were taken to protect the lab workers and the public.

The HHS has apparently agreed that this should be done and passed on these requests, which are non-binding, to the authors and editors.

The NIH says the studies are very important, and the general results should be published so that the research community can start developing ways to rapidly detect strains that show the naturally occurring virus is getting closer to a form that could cross more easily from birds to humans.

In the meantime, the US government says it will set up a mechanism where those with a “legitimate need” for the full information are allowed secure access to it.

Dr. Amy Patterson, science policy director at the NIH told the Associated Press that the authors were going ahead with the changes to their manuscripts.

But the journal editors appear to have some misgivings about how straightforward this might be.

Science‘s Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts said they would be “evaluating how best to proceed”.

He said their response will depend very much on how the US government intends to implement the secure access to the omitted information. For instance how transparent the written down plan is, and how it will ensure that:

“… any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety”.

Nature‘s Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell described the NSABB recommendation to restrict public access to data as “unprecedented” although he and his editors recognize the motivation behind it.

“It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers. We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled,” he added.

However, there are also those in the scientific community who argue that all this is too late, and is a case of trying to close the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Biodefence expert Richard Ebright from Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, told Nature News that the “horse is out of the barn”: the results will already have been seen by many scientists and most likely will soon be all over the scientific grapevine.

Others say it’s the wrong debate anyway: since further research on these strains is now inevitable, what we should be talking about is how to ensure these pathogens don’t escape from the labs that are currently holding them or will be working on them in the future. It’s more a question of biosafety protection than security of information.

And of that we have real examples. In the last ten years we have already seen how severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) strains infected staff at supposedly sufficiently secure labs in China, Taiwan and Singapore.

Michael Osterholm heads the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis, and is a member of the NSABB. He says if SARS or something similar gets out it has limited potential for transmission on a global basis. But flu is different:

“Influenza presents a very difficult challenge because if it ever were to escape, it is one that would quickly go round the world,” he told Nature News.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD