There’s a heated scientific debate going on right now between those who fear the terrorist use of chickens versus those who fear the slippery slope of secrecy in science.
Starting on Thursday, a blue-ribbon panel of invited experts will meet behind closed doors at the World Health Organization to discuss whether or not two controversial experiments done on the avian influenza (bird flu) virus H5N1 should be published.
Chickens are right now the primary means by which bird flu gets transmitted. The concern is that terrorists will use it against humans.
“Biology has never done this before,” said Dr. Samuel Miller, head of the NIH’s Northwest Regional Center for BioDefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases in Seattle.
This could be a critical moment for the biological sciences, Miller said, which has — like most of science — operated according to the fundamental tenet of the free exchange of information, transparency of methods and open, public debate as to the findings.
Samuel Miller, director UW Center on Biodefense
“What we are talking about here is really a fundamental change, about basically classifying a portion of biological research,” he said. Much of the physics community was forced into secrecy during World War II, Miller said, but nothing like this has ever been done for biology.
“I think it’s going to be difficult to get consensus on this,” he said.
The debate stems from two teams of researchers which, reportedly, have made the bird flu virus more easy to transmit in mammals. The virus in nature rarely infects humans but when it does can be very deadly. Continue reading
The U.S. government is opposing full publication by scientists of their methods used to create a mutant form of bird influenza based on the fear it could be used by terrorists to launch a deadly pandemic.
As reasonable as this may sound, many see the government’s position as unworkable and inappropriate.
As Nature magazine and GlobalPost report, some say the researchers should not be allowed to publish their findings because such knowledge would be dangerous in the wrong hands.
On Friday, a compromise position was floated — a three-month hold on publishing while the scientific community figures out how to balance the fundamental need for free and open exchange of ideas with the desire to minimize the potential risk of misuse of scientific information to do harm.
The mutant strain of flu variant H5N1 was created as part of ongoing research to prepare for a major pandemic. As Nature reports:
The mutant strains were not born out of a reckless desire to push the boundaries of high-risk science, but to gain a better understanding of the potential for avian H5N1 to mutate into a form that can spread easily in humans through coughing or sneezing.
That seems prudent enough, but some outside the scientific community are raising the alarm over plans to publish the findings in scientific journals. As The Independent reported:
A deadly strain of bird flu with the potential to infect and kill millions of people has been created in a laboratory by European scientists – who now want to publish full details of how they did it.
The discovery has prompted fears within the US Government that the knowledge will fall into the hands of terrorists wanting to use it as a bio-weapon of mass destruction.
There is reason for caution and precautions have already being taken, beginning with the standard laboratory containment measures. But this is also perhaps evidence why we need to better educate people — apparently including many folks in positions of great power — on statistics and relative risk. Continue reading