Leading virologists on Wednesday warned of censorship after a U.S. bio-terror watchdog asked scientific journals to withhold details of lab work that created a mutant strain of killer flu.
The controversy erupted on Tuesday when the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity urged the world's two top journals to exclude key details before publishing the research papers.
Two separate research teams – one in the Netherlands and the other in the United States – separately have found ways to alter the H5N1 avian influenza so it could pass easily between mammals.
Until now, bird flu has been rare in humans, but particularly fatal in those who do get sick. H5N1 first infected humans in 1997 and has killed more than one in every two people that it infected, for a total of 350 deaths.
Based on fears that a deadly global pandemic could result if the mutant flu escaped a lab or if a terror group were to find out how to make it, a U.S. advisory panel on Tuesday urged scientific journals to hold back key details.
As the U.S.-published Science and its counterpart in London, Nature, mulled the request, some experts said the NSABB request was an overreaction.
Others said it could set a worrying precedent for the free flow of information – a vital component in scientific advance.
"It's going to sully scientific communication if, for spurious concern about biological warfare, little groups of self-appointed people start censoring," said John Oxford, a professor at London Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry. "I know they call it 'redacted' or some such, but it's pure censorship."
Leading U.S. health official Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Wednesday rejected claims of censoring science. Dr. Fauci said that any "legitimate" researchers would be able to seek the full details for their own study.
"It's only for those people who have a need to know and have a legitimate purpose for it, as opposed to just throwing it out there so that anybody can do whatever they want," he added.
Even though the H5N1 virus was extremely lethal, it was not very contagious. It holed up in the bottom of the lungs rather than the upper airways, where viruses are spread by sneezing and coughing.
But the lab-made pathogen reportedly swept away the mainstream concept of H5N1's lethality-versus-spreadability balance. Tested on ferrets, it turned out to be both deadly and contagious. How much, though, has not emerged.
NSABB chair Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist, told the AAAS Science Insider report last month that he had huge concerns.
"I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one," Dr. Keim was quoted as saying. "I don't think anthrax is scary at all compared to this."
However, Prof. Oxford said that, with billions of poultry around the world, there was a statistical probability that one day the same genetic alignment of H5N1 that was created artificially would crop up naturally.
"The biggest terrorist on this planet is Mother Nature. That's what we have to worry about, not someone sitting in a cave in Afghanistan," he said.
Several killer viruses and germs, including the bacteria for anthrax and the plague, have already been genetically sequenced and their data placed in the public domain.