Today, December 20, 2011, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) released its decision regarding publication of two scientific papers claiming to have made a "super-flu" variant of the H5N1 avian virus. Two research teams, from the Netherlands and Wisconsin, separately claimed in September to have man-made genetic variants of the widely circulating H5N1 virus, rendering the flu not only transmissible man-to-man, but also more than 50 percent lethal.
As I described last week, the research sparked a range of fears, including concern that what amounts to the most dangerous human pathogen ever known to have existed could escape its laboratory confines, with disastrous repercussions; that publication of the "how-to" aspects of the experiments could constitute handing a catastrophe cookbook to terrorists or malevolent individuals; and that recent proliferation in high security biology labs worldwide has increased the risk of both lab accidents and untraceable bioterrorism research.
The NSABB faced three basic options regarding publication of papers by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University in Rotterdam and Yoshi Kawaoke of the University of Wisconsin in Madison:
1) Advise all credible scientific publications to decline release of the papers, essentially censoring the work;
2) Allow full and free publication of both papers;
3) Advise publication, but with key passages related to how the feats were performed, deleted.