- Recommendation from NSABB made in March formally accepted
PUBLISHED: 07:06 EST, 23 April 2012 | UPDATED: 07:09 EST, 23 April 2012
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) concluded in March that they should be made public – and this recommendation has now been formally accepted.
The NSABB took a stand over the papers last year out of concerns that details of the studies – which induced mutations in the virus that made it transmissible among mammals by air rather than by close physical contact – could be used for bioterrorism.
However, in a statement issued on Friday, the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, said: ‘This information has clear value to national and international public health preparedness efforts and must be shared with those who are poised to realize the benefits of this research.’
When the NSABB initially recommended the two papers should not be published in full by the journals where they were under consideration, Nature and Science, critics raised fears that important science was being censored.
The ensuing debate raised questions about whether the research should have been done at all, as well as whether current national and international rules on biosafety and biosecurity are sufficient to protect the public from dangerous microbes.
The biosecurity panel spent two days earlier this year considering the papers.
Both papers describe how scientists altered several genes of natural, or wild-type, H5N1 in a way that allowed it to spread from the airways of infected ferrets to other ferrets caged nearby.
So far, the natural form of H5N1 has infected tens of millions of ducks, geese, chickens, and other birds. But the only people to be infected – 598, of whom 353 have died – were those who came into close contact with the flocks.
The board was persuaded by an additional benefit of publishing the research – by informing countries where H5N1 is endemic, it would allow scientists there to be on the lookout for the mutations that make the virus more transmissible.
‘We had new information, confidential information, about benefits of this research, and we also had confidential information about the risks involved,’ said Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, who is the acting chairman of the panel.
‘And the balance began to change.’
Ron Fouchier, who led one of the experiments, said the NSABB decision was ‘very much to our pleasure.’
Collins added: ‘The U.S. Government aims to preserve the benefits of vitally important life sciences research that holds the promise of enhancing quality of life for all of us, while minimizing the possibility that the knowledge, information, products, or technologies provided by such research could be misused for harm.’