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Bird flu cockfight: Secrecy vs Science

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.

One team is in Amsterdam, led by Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center, and the other by Yoshishiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin. Both are established virology labs supported by major research organizations like the National Institutes of Health and other agencies (Kawaoka’s research in H5N1 was also funded by the Gates Foundation, which so far has stayed out of the fray).

Some think the research should never have been done, that these teams have basically created a viral mutant that, if let loose, would create the most deadly infectious disease ever seen in modern history. Others say the research is important and valuable, but the findings should be kept secret since they pose a major threat to human health.

Those making the less emotional and more difficult case for scientific transparency, open exchange of information and public debate contend the risks have been exaggerated.

Here are a few news stories providing background on the meeting:

NPR/KPLU: Virus Engineering and the Fear of Science

Reuters Decision Time for Researchers of Deadly Bird Flu Virus

CBS Deadly bird flu research: World Health Organizations wants to settle debate

Scientific American H5N1 bird flu virus may be less deadly than thought

Me: Five reasons not to panic

The primary concern, in a nutshell, is that terrorists or an unbalanced scientist will make use of this information to “weaponize” bird flu and kill many tens of millions of people on Earth.

For the first time ever in the biological sciences, last December, a government advisory agency — the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity — has advised against full publication of biological research.

At first, most of the coverage of this historic episode focused on the potential threat of the modified H5N1 virus. Two scientific journals, Nature and Science, agreed to postpone publication of the research and the scientific community recently agreed to a 60-day moratorium on such research while these issues get hashed out.

The WHO meeting in Geneva is just the latest in the ongoing debate and many scientists, mostly in private, say they don’t expect resolution to come from this closed-door, invitation-only meeting. Many are pressing for a broader, open debate that both educates the public about such ‘dual-use’ research and includes the entire community — not just scientists — in the dialogue.

As Miller noted, this could be biology’s big Manhattan Project moment. Do we want to be included in the discussion, or just leave it up to the experts and government officials?

“The horse is already partway out of the barn on this,” noted Miller. Much of the basic scientific methods used to alter the bird flu virus are known already, he said, and even if that wasn’t the case it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out how to do it.

Other top infectious disease experts I’ve talked to say much the same thing — off-the-record, for the most part — and that to some extent this appears to be a bit of a demonstration project.

Some say the bird flu flap appears to be driven by those legitimately trying to demonstrate to a skittish public (Did you see the movie Contagion?) that the scientific community is on top of things. Others appear to be merely fear-mongering — since there is always a market for fear-mongering, whether in the media or by those seeking more funds from Congress.

Miller said he thinks this is an important and legitimate debate.

“There is no easy answer here,” he said.

But what might be better than a select few debating what to do with these two studies, Miller said, would be to bring in the public for a much broader discussion that truly balances the need for risk reduction against the equally important — if less sexy — need for openness in science.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.