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.
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