From Nature magazine
The packages that started arriving by FedEx on 12 October last year came with strict instructions: protect the information within and destroy it after review. Inside were two manuscripts showing how the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus could be made to transmit between mammals. The recipients of these packages — eight members of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) — faced the unenviable task of deciding whether the research was safe to publish.
The group deliberated. Soon, the rest of the NSABB's 22 voting members and two dozen non-voting members and advisers were drawn in. For five-and-a-half weeks, they pored over the data in the papers, weighing the benefits of sharing the information against the risk that doing so might lead to the accidental or intentional release of a lethal new virus. They exchanged views in hundreds of e-mails and in more than 24 hours of teleconference calls.
On 21 November, the NSABB recommended that journals should redact the papers, publishing their conclusions but sharing methods and data only with approved scientists and health officials. It was the first time that the board had recommended any such restriction since it was convened in 2005, and it sparked a global debate — aired in journals, meetings, blogs and newspapers — that is still raging and has left the US government in an awkward spot. “The United States funded this research and then wanted to censor it,” says David Fidler, who teaches international law at Indiana University Bloomington. “This looked dysfunctional.”
Throughout these turbulent months, the spotlight has shone as much on the NSABB as it has on the mutant flu viruses. The board's members, with backgrounds ranging from biology to medicine to national security and law, have been developing guidelines for biosecurity oversight for nearly seven years. The flu research was a major test of the principles they had been espousing.
By all appearances, the board struggled. By mid-February, the NSABB was under pressure to overturn its initial assessment. And in the last days of March, it did — voting unanimously in favour of full publication for one paper, which appeared early this month1. The board also recommended that the second paper be published, but six members dissented, arguing that the work still posed significant concerns. (That paper's publication is expected within weeks.) The whole episode has left many people with questions. Could the board have done better? Why wasn't the research flagged earlier? And is there a way to publish sensitive information while minimizing risks?
There is one point of agreement, says David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University in California and member of the NSABB: “This is not the way any of us wants to see these issues discussed, that is, at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute.”
The NSABB's roots can be traced back to October 2001, when letters carrying anthrax spores were sent to several public figures around the country (see 'Threat and response'). In response, the US government invested billions of dollars to prepare for future acts of bioterror, much of it channelled into pathogen research through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland. In parallel, Congress asked the National Academies to form a panel to recommend how dual-use research — work that could carry bioterror risks as well as benefits — should be identified, regulated and reported. Scientists were anxious to show that they could police their own work and avoid heavy-handed or cumbersome regulation from above. “The science community ought to come up with a process before the public demands the government do it for them,” warned Parney Albright of the US Department of Homeland Security in 2003 .