12/27/2011 04:00 EST | Updated 02/26/2012 05:12 EST

Bird Flu Research: Scientists Fear Controversy Over H5N1 Studies Could Lead To Research Chill

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Influenza scientists are worried they may be feeling a cold front moving in.

A recent unprecedented decision by the U.S. government to ask two leading scientific journals to withhold publication of key information from controversial bird flu studies has scientists in this sector nervous.

They fear a chill may be descending on their field, potentially making it harder to tackle studies aimed at answering one of the key questions in influenza science, namely how viruses that normally infect birds, pigs or other mammals evolve to become viruses that infect people.

In the short term, it may also become harder to publish any work looking at this question if it relates to the dangerous H5N1 avian flu.

The panel of biosecurity experts that advised the U.S. government to object to publication of the disputed studies may also recommend that researchers and journals be asked to agree to a short-term moratorium on publishing any work about what makes H5N1 viruses more transmissible.

Paul Keim, an anthrax expert who is acting chair of the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity, says scientists, public health officials and policy makers need to reach some agreement about how much of this work is safe to do, and how much of it is safe to put into the public domain.

"A short-term publication moratorium is not essential for this, but I think that it would be useful," Keim, a professor at the University of Northern Arizona, says via email.

"We know that there is a lot of research occurring in this specific area and with every paper, the situation changes. Setting policy in such an environment is difficult and it is hard enough already."

It's not yet clear that the biosecurity board will ask for the moratorium. Nor is it certain how journals will handle the request if it comes.

But the two journals involved in the current controversy, Science and Nature, have both indicated they are at least willing to discuss a compromise, so long as a system can be devised that would give scientists and public health authorities access the withheld information on a need-to-know basis.

If the studies are published in abbreviated form, it would be a first for the life sciences, many involved in the discussions believe.

Scientists who work in nuclear physics are often unable to publish their work, for security reasons. But in most areas of science, the paradigm is that if researchers find something or achieve a goal, they must publish how they did the work so that others can try to replicate it and build on it.

It is science's best defence against fraud, though it is not a foolproof one. It is also the way science advances.

Among flu scientists, the new scrutiny of their field is raising concerns about whether ongoing or planned work will be impeded.

Those keen for answers that would help the world better assess the risk the H5N1 virus poses are particularly worried that the biosecurity concerns might stop them from seeking answers to questions that might tell the world how likely — or unlikely — bird flu is to adapt to human-to-human spread.

"That is an absolutely key question," says Malik Peiris, a leading flu researcher and chair of the department of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, who adds constraining this type of work "would be a huge loss."

Richard Webby agrees, noting that expert working groups asked in recent years to draw up flu research priority lists for the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease both identified studies on what makes viruses transmissible as a key challenge for the field.

"It really gets to one of the most basic unanswered questions we have about these animal influenza viruses — what does it take to increase their transmission?" says Webby, who heads the WHO's influenza reference laboratory at St. Judes Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

The director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases — which funded the two disputed studies — says he'll fight to keep the biosecurity concerns from getting in the way of the science.

"I will do everything in my power to ensure that it doesn't inhibit the research. Because the research we're interested in is the legitimate research done by scientists who have a legitimate interest," says Dr. Anthony Fauci.

But Dr. D.A. Henderson, who led the campaign that eradicated smallpox, thinks flu researchers are worried with good reason. "I can see where they'd be concerned about it. But I think we ought to be concerned about working with H5N1."

Henderson, who is a distinguished scholar at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is on record saying he believes the studies that drew the biosecurity board's concern should not have been done, that the risks of the work outweighed any potential benefit.

Flu researchers disagree, arguing these kinds of studies can help the world solve the mystery of how viruses make the jump from other species into humans.

"If someone makes a virus, specifically only for making it more pathogenic without learning any biology and in such a way that cannot occur in nature but can only be man-made, then I would be concerned because there is no purpose for this experiment," says Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, an influenza researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

But the viruses made in the two studies that triggered this debate could occur in nature, Garcia-Sastre insists.

He fears the result of the controversy will be additional layers of bureaucracy that will box out all but the biggest and best financed laboratories from doing this type of work.

Garcia-Sastre admits he's had discussions with his institution about whether any of his influenza research might raise biosecurity concerns. Webby says his team has also had talks about whether any of their work might be classified as so-called "dual-use" — legitimate science which could also be put to nefarious ends.

These kinds of discussions are entirely appropriate, Keim says. "I suspect that after these events, there will be a lot more people looking at their research than had been before, and I view that as a good thing."

Keim isn't worried the controversy will lead to less flu research. On the contrary, he thinks it may add a sense of urgency to the field. It's a view Michael Osterholm shares.

Osterholm is both an infectious diseases expert and a member of the advisory board that recommended the studies were too dangerous to be published in full.

"I think it will create a temporary slowdown, just because we're all going to be looking at what should be done, how should it be done and why it should be done," says Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

"But in the end I think it will actually cause a great acceleration of H5N1 research. Because now that we know what we know, we can make the clear case that we need a lot more research. People can't write this (virus) off."