NSABB Asks Influenza Researchers to Withhold Technical Information


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Growing H5N1 under Biosafety Level 3 conditions: Image courtesy of U. S. CDC

Journal Editors Cautiously Agree to Comply

Editors at both Science and Nature are taking the recommendation seriously. In a public statement, Bruce Alberts , Editor-in-Chief of Science said, “We strongly support the work of the NSABB and the importance of its mission for advancing science to serve society. At the same time, however, Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers.” He adds that their decision will be heavily dependent on steps taken by the U. S. government to provide information omitted from the publication to responsible scientists who request it.

Nature’s Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell said that, despite understanding the motivation behind them, the NSABB recommendations are “unprecedented” and would restrict public access to data and methods. “It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers.”

NSABB Emphasizes the Need to Explain Reasons for H5N1 Research

The NSABB also recommended the addition of language to the manuscripts that better explains the goals and potential health benefits of the research, and describes the extensive safety and security measures taken to protect laboratory workers and the public. For example, both were done in biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) labs, which require scientists to shower and change clothes when leaving. Level 3 labs also work under negative air pressure, and exhaust air is released through high-efficiency particulate air filters.

When asked to comment, Paul S. Keim Ph.D., Professor of Microbiology at Northern Arizona University and Acting Chair of the NSABB, said that although he isn’t sure that either of these investigators has created a highly virulent pandemic-capable virus, he’s convinced that  research efforts will do so in the future.

What is critical is that research policy in this arena be set by a  broad international consensus. It is important that this involves many segments of our societies and span the globe. This is critical research for public health as well as for biosecurity,” he emphasizes. For such a policy to succeed, he adds, “I think that there needs to be short term phase to reflect upon the consequences of this research and then decide how to proceed. Requesting the redacted publication of these two papers was a part of this call to set broader policy – the papers themselves are merely the tipping point. I am urging everyone to look at these recommendations in this broader context of research policy.”


National Institutes of Health. Press Statement on the NSABB Review of H5N1 Research. (2011). Accessed December 26, 2011.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Guidelines for Avian Influenza Viruses. (2011). Accessed December 26, 2011.

Virology. Influenza Research. (2011). Accessed December 26, 2011.

AAAS. Statement by Science Editor‐in‐Chief Dr. Bruce Alberts Regarding Publication of H5N1 Avian Influenza Research. (2011). Accessed December 26, 2011.

Butler, D. NSABB Asks Influenza Researchers to Withhold Technical Information. Nature. (2011). Accessed December 26, 2011.

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