Better Never Than Late

Science  14 Oct 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5746, pp. 195
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5746.195

Editor-in-Chief

Last week, this space contained an editorial by Phillip Sharp, dealing with the difficult problems raised by the publication of information about certain “dual-use” technologies. The term arises because papers dealing with modified human pathogens that are also “select agents” might yield great public health benefits but also could be used by terrorists against that same public. A U.S. National Academies committee chaired by Gerald Fink recommended in a 2003 report that a National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) be established. As Sharp's editorial reported, that body was consulted with regard to Science's publication of the paper by Tumpey et al. on the reconstruction of the 1918 Spanish influenza virus. It voted unanimously in favor of publication.

That may sound like a happy ending, but it wasn't entirely happy nor is it the whole story. The paper's history contains some lessons about how this kind of dual-use problem should be managed. We recognized that the work might raise questions about the propriety of publication, and we considered this during the process of scientific peer review. We followed an established procedure in which we solicit views from experts who have knowledge about security issues. The authors located at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were urged to consult with CDC Director Julie Gerberding and with Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Amy Patterson, director of the Office of Biotechnology Activities (the office responsible for NSABB matters) at the National Institutes of Health, was also informed. All three felt that the public health benefits of the study far outweighed any biosecurity risks.

CREDIT: SCIENCE

Having received these assurances by 16 September and thus confident about moving forward, we were prepared to send pages to the printer early in the week of 26 September. On that day, the editorial staff went off to Science's annual retreat in West Virginia. Alas, on the evening of 27 September, a call was relayed from the Office of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), indicating belated concerns about the paper.

There followed a series of conference calls involving various HHS officials, including Patterson and Assistant HHS Secretary Stewart Simonson, who reported that HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt was insisting on review by the NSABB. I told them that in 24 hours the issue would be at the printer, and reminded them that the NSABB's own charter makes it clear that it does not screen individual papers. Simonson ordered that the NSABB committee be polled—just as the issue was being printed—and a day later, we learned of its approval. A virologist on the NSABB board suggested adding an editorial addressing some of the biosecurity issues. We gave them this page: Phillip Sharp was persuaded to write a piece on short notice, and produced splendidly. He and I did some final edits on Sunday night so that it could be squeezed into the issue at the last possible moment.

What can be learned from all this? To begin with, Science did the right thing in consulting with the proper authorities, both our own and those at HHS. The 11th-hour intervention from the secretary's office, it has been explained to us, was to give the NSABB a real experience with a “live” issue. That may have been a useful purpose, but it did cause some hardship to editors and authors alike. There are other issues in such cases that should concern the scientific community. First, there is a real question of authority here. Government officials can advise, and should be listened to thoughtfully. But they can't order the nonpublication of a paper just because they consider the findings “sensitive.” No such category short of classification exists, as the Reagan-era Executive Order National Security Decision Directive 189, still in force, makes clear. If a paper should not be published because of biosecurity risks, then it should be classified. Second, the NSABB should regard this first exercise as a helpful one-off and turn to its mandate of developing principles rather than making decisions on individual papers.

So would I, given our own convictions, the timing, and what we had learned from our consultations with Gerberding, Fauci, and others, have published the paper even if the NSABB had voted otherwise? Absolutely—unless they had it classified.

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