This comment was first published in Nature, no. 7381, vol. 481. © Nature Publishing Group, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited.
If the two papers (submitted to Nature and Science) describing a transmissible form of the H5N1 virus are the first to be published with key details missing, they probably won’t be the last. We need to establish both a short-term and a long-term solution for how the scientific community should handle such a publication. Who decides who should have access to the full details? Who monitors the community so that the details don’t get passed around outside the group of experts cleared to receive them?
I believe that the entire process must be regulated by a global health body, ideally the World Health Organization (WHO). Already, a WHO committee oversees all research involving the smallpox virus. A similar, more developed system could work for H5N1 and other deadly pathogens. An international group of experts would approve research involving those agents, decide who will have access to the details of papers that come out of that work, and hold those vetted individuals accountable for what they do with the information. For instance, such a system might allow permitted experts to view papers only electronically, so nothing is on paper. A database could record the privileged few people who have seen the full paper, and what they do with the information. In all likelihood, legal
safeguards would be needed to protect the rights of people who receive the sensitive information. Such a process would not offer complete protection against misuse, but it would show the scientific community that the committee is watching what they do.
Because dangerous pathogens are a global issue, any procedure would need buy-in from all countries, who would have to give the committee binding jurisdiction over research involving extremely dangerous agents. This will take some time. In the short term, the WHO or some other global health organization should immediately establish an ad hoc committee to review who should receive access to the full H5N1 papers, and ensure that the details do not circulate widely.
Most importantly, these discussions should not be controlled by officials focused on national security. H5N1 is primarily a matter of public health. If there is a threat of bioterrorism, let it be judged by a global health organization, which can set rules that do not deprive scientists of information that could save millions of people in the case of a natural pandemic. If national-security organizations become involved, they will vet scientists on the basis of citizenship, and will be inclined to discriminate against those countries in which terrorists have found refuge. But some of those countries are among the few that have experienced human deaths from H5N1, and are most likely to witness the origins of a natural pandemic. It is crucial that scientists and other experts are judged on their qualifications, not on their nationality. If the world is to accept the process, national-security officials cannot be allowed to dominate the discussion.