Fearing Terrorism, U.S. Asks Journals to Censor Articles on Virus
For the first time ever, a government advisory board is asking scientific journals not to publish the details of certain biomedical experiments, for fear that the information could be used by terrorists to create deadly viruses and touch off epidemics.
In the experiments, conducted in the United States and the Netherlands, scientists created a highly transmissible form of a deadly flu virus that does not normally spread from person to person. Easy transmission is all it takes to start a pandemic, in which the virus spreads all over the world. The work was done in ferrets, which are considered a good model for predicting what flu viruses will do in people.
The virus, A(H5N1), was the one that causes bird flu, which rarely infects people but has an extraordinarily high death rate when it does get into humans.
A government advisory panel, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, has asked two journals, Science and Nature, to keep certain details out of reports that they intend to publish on the research. The panel cannot force the journals to censor their articles, but the editor of Science, Bruce Alberts, said the journal was taking the recommendations seriously and would most likely withhold some information. He said the government would create a system to provide the missing details to legitimate scientists anywhere in the world who needed them.
Dr. David R. Franz, a biologist who formerly headed the Army defensive biological lab at Fort Detrick, Md., is a member of the board and said its decision to intervene, made in the fall, was quite reasonable.
“My concern is that we don’t give amateurs — or terrorists — information that might let them do something that could really cause a lot of harm,” he said in an interview.
“It’s a wake-up call,” Dr. Franz added. “We need to make sure that our best and most responsible scientists have the information they need to prepare us for whatever we might face.”
Dr. Amy P. Patterson, director of the office of biotechnology activities at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md., which oversees the board, said the recommendations were a first.
“The board in the past has reviewed manuscripts but never before concluded that communications should be restricted in any way,” she said in a telephone interview. “These two bodies of work stress the importance of public health preparedness to monitor this virus. We need to enhance our preparedness.”