LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. For the first time, the federal government is asking scientists to keep details secret from controversial experiments, out of fear the information could be used to create a biological weapon.
The two genetic experiments involved bird flu. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce first told us about the research last month. The virus was altered, making it potentially much more dangerous to people.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Ever since 2001 and the anthrax attacks, biologists have discussed the fact that their legitimate work to understand diseases might sometimes have a dark side. This has mostly been a theoretical discussion until the recent bird flu experiments.
Bird flu rarely infects people. But when it does, it can be deadly. Scientists wanted to know if this virus was capable of mutating in a way that would make it spread easily between people and cause a pandemic. So they altered its genes in the lab, produced a new flu virus that was far more contagious, and submitted their work for publication.
PAUL KEIM: You know, this is a watershed moment, in the sense that I don't think any researcher has been ever asked to not publish important results like this before.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Paul Keim is a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University. He chairs the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. That's a committee set up by the government to offer advice on biology that could be misused.
It recently reviewed two manuscripts describing the bird flu experiments, and unanimously agreed that key details about the methods should be removed before publication.
KEIM: To prevent someone else from exactly replicating the work.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even though the government paid for this research, it can't legally censor it. So officials have asked the scientists to censor themselves. They've made the same request of the science journals considering publishing these papers. Officials say they will set up a system that will give secure access to the sensitive information to those public health researchers who really need it to develop new therapies and vaccines. That system will have to screen scientists, not just in the U.S. but all around the globe.
Bruce Alberts is editor-in-chief of the journal Science, which wants to publish one of the papers in some form. He says he respects the advice of the committee, and his journal is evaluating how to proceed. Their decision will depend on the next steps made by the government.
BRUCE ALBERTS: I think it's critically important that we announce to the world, at the same time as we publish this paper, how scientists anywhere in the world with a legitimate right to know can get this information.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: One of the experiments was done at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. Researchers there issued a statement saying they would follow the recommendations. But they say the data will need to be shared with hundreds of researchers and governments, so keeping control of it will be almost impossible.
That point was echoed by Richard Ebright, a chemist at Rutgers University. He's long been calling for stricter oversight of biological research that could pose a threat. He says the government's response is window-dressing.
RICHARD EBRIGHT: We do not have a proposed system of effective oversight. We have a public relations management exercise designed to minimize public concern and deflect calls for effective oversight.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the government should be requiring mandatory reviews of worrisome research before it's done because the real danger is the lab-created virus itself. There's no guarantee it won't escape.
Amy Patterson is associate director for science policy at the National Institutes of Health. She says the government is in the process of developing a new framework for overseeing research.
AMY PATTERSON: It's not an easy task to walk that delicate tightrope and have a system in place that minimizes the potential for misuse and yet, at the same time, really enable science to move forward in the way that we need it to.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says proposed regulations will be issued in the next month or two, for public comment.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.