The scientific community, in the end, agreed to publish controversial bird flu virus studies despite the arguments of those who favored keeping the research secret because of the risk some might use it to make a super bad virus.
At stake in this cockfight, as I wrote earlier, was the fundamental principle in science of open and transparent exchange of information pitted against the desire to reduce risk and the hypothetical threat of misuse.
The decision to publish is big news today and variously characterized:
New York Times Bird Flu Paper is Published After Debate
LA Times (via Herald) Scientists explain how they created easily spread virus
Wall Street Journal Study shows bird flu virus’ pandemic potential
Chronicle Higher Ed Study points the way how to stop, not start, pandemic
Yeah, I think that last headline should be the primary take-away here. The real risk here is that the H5N1 bird flu virus will naturally mutate into a form that is easily spread to humans (Note: Contrary to some news reports, the research virus is still not that easily spread in mammals).
Keeping important research secret because of possible misuse also poses a risk — it hamstrings the scientific community’s ability to make progress based on the work of others. The whole point of publication is to share knowledge. Below is an op-ed in Nature by a bio-weapons expert that makes the case for why publishing these studies was the right decision.
Nature Do Not Censor Science in the Name of Security. Says author Tim Trevan:
“Almost all biological knowledge can be either misused or applied for good…. Censorship of the H5N1 papers would not have kept the genie in the bottle. Suppressing such papers or limiting access to their findings might even encourage proliferation by drawing attention to the risks and by provoking those researchers denied access to the results to seek to replicate them.”