November 15th, 2016
By Abel Koga, Ranveer Uppal, Abigail Wagner
“Research is always about weighing up the risks and benefits” – Ron Fouchier, Researcher of the H5N1 virus (Oughton).
Who: The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity
What: Scientific studies on mutations of the H5N1 virus
When: December 20, 2011 – June 21, 2012
Where: United States of America
Why: Fear that the information could be used by terrorists to create bioweapons
On December 20, 2011, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), led by chairman Paul Keim, received two independent scientific papers from the US government. These papers described how to synthesize a strain of the H5N1 avian flu virus. Unlike the original strain, this new form of H5N1 was highly transmissible and possibly much more deadly. Though the purpose of the research was to investigate the virus’s potential danger to society, the NSABB, fearing that some of the information present could be used to create a biological weapon, strongly recommended censoring this research. Specifically, it advised the deletion of sections of the research which described, in detail, how the original strain could be mutated to create the new strain. Although the board acted in the interest of biosecurity, the information’s censorship sparked uproar in the scientific community and instigated ethical debates worldwide. In this debate, two arguments were established. The first was that the papers should be censored for the sake of biosecurity. The other was that all information must be released for the sake of scientific progress.
These scientific findings on H5N1 were the only research ever to have been censored by the NSABB (Ledford 9). But why? Similar research papers have been brought before the NSABB for review, such as studies on the reconstruction of the H1N1 influenza virus, which was responsible for the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, yet this study was reviewed and published with little difficulty (Ledford 9). As the debate as developed, the H5N1 research studies have become “paradigmatic examples of the so-called dual-use dilemma, when scientific research, materials or technologies can be used to benefit and harm humanity” (
In order to understand this event, it is necessary to understand the history of the H5N1 virus and its effects on the lives of people today. The H5N1 virus stems from the HPAI, highly pathogenic, viral strains of avian influenza. This category of virus has produced numerous different strains over the past few centuries. Although most strains are harmless to humans, some present a great danger to humanity. Indeed, a few strains in the past century generated outbreaks that ravaged societies throughout the world. For example, the H1N1 virus strain, more commonly known as the Spanish Flu, infected one-fifth of the world’s population in 1918-1919 and killed between 20 to 50 million people (Kawaoka 155). In addition, the H2N2 and H3N2 viruses, otherwise known as the Asian Flu and Hong Kong Flu respectively, are estimated to have killed approximately 1 million and 750,000 people during their outbreaks (Thomas 918). These major outbreaks were followed by relatively smaller ones such as the swine flu until the most recent strain, H5N1, appeared in 1997. Due to the massive losses of life as a result of these outbreaks, scientists, health organizations, and governments around the world have viewed appearances of virus strains from the HPAI family with severity. Thus, when the H5N1 virus appeared in Hong Kong in 1997, authorities swiftly “slaughtered every chicken—approximately 1.4 million—in Hong Kong” to prevent the spread of the virus (Thomas 922). Despite these efforts however, the virus has since infected 548 people, become widespread in parts of East and Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and has led to the culling of hundreds of millions of birds (Kawaoka 155). The H5N1 virus has proved that, like its cousin viruses, it is a virulent and lethal disease. If, through experimental mutations, it became even more transmissible and deadly to humans, then the new strain could potentially wreak havoc globally.
However, the history of the H5N1 strain does not explain the censorship of its research in particular, as opposed to research on the Spanish Flu, which historically had a far more devastating impact on the world than the H5N1 strain. This act of censorship stemmed from the nature of the research of the H5N1 virus strain. While research on the 1918 H1N1 virus strain focused primarily on its reconstruction, the research regarding the H5N1 strain focused on the creation of more transmissible strains of the virus to humans. According to Dr. Keim in an interview with The Independent, the research papers should be censored because the world was “not yet prepared for a strain of highly lethal H5N1 influenza that can be transmitted by coughs and sneezes.” (Connor) This NSABB’s decision and the opinions of scientists who supported the censorship of the studies were also influenced by the SARS outbreak in 2003. Otherwise known as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, this virus was unrelated to the HPAI virus. However, it was a disease transmissible between humans that rapidly infected thousands of people worldwide and killed seven hundred seventy-four within a few months (SARS). This outbreak illustrated just how quickly a disease could transcend regional and global boundaries and emphasized the importance of suppressing outbreaks before they become a worldwide epidemic. As Dr. Keim stated, “I’m not confident at all that we have the surveillance capability to spot an emerging virus in time to stop it” (Connor). Hence, the NSABB and delegates of the scientific community were opposed to the publication of these research studies. If an outbreak involving a mutated form of H5N1 did occur, they feared that the world would lack the resources to contain and defend itself against.
Below is a video giving an overview of the entire H5N1 controversy.
The NSABB also had their own reason for recommending the censorship of these research papers. According to estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.N. officials, if a strain of H5N1 became transmissible between humans, the death toll could reach one hundred to one hundred fifty million (Thomas 930). Furthermore, in the research conducted by Dr. Ron Fouchier and his team, only five mutations (all of which occur naturally in nature) were made to the test H5N1 virus strain before it became easily transmissible to ferrets (Evans 209). This revelation highlighted just how dangerous the virus could become if the right mutations were made to create a perfect, genetically-engineered bioweapon. As Dr. Keim argued, “I don’t like to scare people, but the worst case scenarios here are just enormous” (Ledford 9). Keim’s statement emphasized his belief the potential danger, if an outbreak occurred: it was estimated that between 7.4 million and 50 million people would perish worldwide if the virus would mutate into a form easily transmissible from human to human (Thomas 930).
The deliberate release of the virus was not the only concern; the NSABB also feared an accidental outbreak. Every time the potent strain is replicated in a lab, there is a chance that the virus could accidentally be released (Evans 211). Because of this concern, the NSABB believed that obstructing further research advancements could prevent such a catastrophe (Evans 211). Thus, the NSABB later proposed releasing the studies without “the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm” (Ledford 9). In short, it would publish the paper if the actual sequence of amino acids required for the production of this particular strain of the H5N1 virus was deleted.
One final argument against the publication of the papers argued more broadly that scientists who publish their findings do so, not always for scientific advancement, but to gain prestigious statuses and material wealth. According to these individuals, such superficial pursuits are not worth the potential risk of releasing dangerous information (Evans 211).
The most prominent argument against censoring the H5N1 research studies was that it could have catastrophic repercussions for the future because it sets a precedent for violating scientific freedom (Ledford 9). Many scientists believed that such research censorship would undermine the purpose of science and thus would hinder the overall progress of the community. In his article Great Expectations- Ethics, Avian Flu, and the Value of Progress, Nicholas G. Evans describes scientific freedom as “the freedom to publish scientific research without interference.” Evans’ definition illustrates the general fear in the scientific community of the repercussions of violating scientific freedom for, what may be, harmless research.
Tim Trevan, executive director of the International Council for the Life Sciences, argued against research censorship in his article Do Not Censor Science in the Name of Biosecurity. He proposes that the whole concept of dual-use biological research is flawed and emerged as a consequence of an “inappropriate hangover from nuclear threat analysis” (295). According to Trevan, all biological research can be used for both positive and negative effects. He further argues that the fear of research being used as a bioweapon is, in part, irrational. First, while a bioweapon is of concern, its effects would be erratic, unpredictable, and overall easy to combat with counter drugs and vaccines. In addition, terrorists would be deterred from using a weapon that will harm innocent people and undermine support for their cause. For these reasons, the number of individually potentially interested in creating a weapon would be severely limited. Second, he argues that even if there were people interested in using a mutated strain of the H5N1 virus as a bioweapon, censorship of this research would not succeed in impeding their plan. In fact, censorship would only draw more media attention to the harmful potential of the research.
Another argument in favor of publication was that the best way to prevent biological attacks is to make biological weapons look unattractive by a policy of preparedness. If such research were allowed to be published, it would allow countries across the world to gain better insight into the transmissibility and pathogenicity of the strain (Trevan 295). Hence, the information would allow them to identify threats before early, produce more effective vaccines, and be more prepared to deal with any outbreaks.
Finally, proponents for the release of the papers argued that openness in science and progress go hand in hand, and by censoring these papers this very openness is restricted and progress in science is thwarted. Counterarguments could specify, however, that openness is not necessarily required for scientific advancement. The Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of the nuclear bomb, was highly classified and conducted by a small group of scientists (Evans 211). Indeed, most of the nation was unaware of its existence, and fewer still were privy to the scientific findings that it yielded. The Manhattan Project is a paradigmatic example of scientific advancement occurring under the restraints of censorship. Thus, we must question whether partial censorship of the H5N1 studies will truly hinder advancement or if progress will occur in spite of the censorship, like it did for the Manhattan Project. This is a question that is yet to be answered.
The below link is a debate between two scientists regarding the censorship of the H5N1 research papers
Although both papers were eventually published in their entirety, the ethical questions surrounding them still remain. While the H5N1 conflict may not have revealed which view is correct, it ultimately revealed just how easily scientific freedom, even in a free country, can be repressed for the sake of safety.
Connor, Steve. “No Way of Stopping Leak of Deadly New Flu, Says Terror Chief.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 7 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
Evans, Nicholas G. “Great Expectations—ethics, Avian Flu and the Value of Progress.” Journal of Medical Ethics 39 (2012): 209-13. ProQuest. 30 Oct. 2012. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.
Kawaoka, Yoshihiro. “H5N1: Flu Transmission Work Is Urgent.” Nature 482 (2012): 155. Nature.com. Macmillan Publishers, 25 Jan. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
Ledford, Heidi. “Call to Censor Flu Studies Draws Fire.” Nature 481 (2012): 9-10. Nature.com. Macmillan Publishers, 3 Jan. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
Oughton, Edward. “Past Event: Science and Censorship.” CUSPE RSS. Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.
Palese, Peter. “Don’t Censor Life-saving Science.” Nature 481 (2012): 115. Nature.com. Macmillan Publishers, 11 Jan. 2012. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.
“SARS Basics Fact Sheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 02 July 2012. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.
Thomas, Nicholas. “The Regionalization of Avian Influenza in East Asia: Responding to the Next Pandemic(?).” Asian Survey 6th ser. 46 (2006): 917-36. JSTOR. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.
Trevan, Tim. “Do Not Censor Science in the Name of Biosecurity.” Nature 486.7403 (2012): 295. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.
Yong, Ed. “Mutant-flu Paper Published.” Nature 485 (2012): 13-14. Nature.com. Macmillan Publishers, 2 May 2012. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.
H5N1, NSABB, biosecurity, terrorism, bioweapon, Avian Flu, HPAI, virus, censorship, academic freedom,