Scientific inquiry, biosafety, and censorship

Investigators at the University of Wisconsin and at Erasmus University in the Netherlands have modified the H5N1 avian influenza strain so that it is not only highly virulent but also can be efficiently transmitted (at least among ferrets). Since the release of such a strain (high lethality, high transmissibility) would set the stage for a real-life version of the movie Contagion, there has been some high level angst about the wisdom of publishing the details of these experiments. This is kind of a big deal now, with a U.S. government panel appealing to two high-profile scientific journals (Nature and Science) to keep the experimental details out of the published reports of these experiments.

It appears that the scientists and institutions involved will comply with the recommendations of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. However, this work has already been presented at open scientific meetings, and detailed articles have been sent for peer review. And as Ron Fouchier, the lead investigator at Erasmus, says in today’s NY Times, “as soon as you share information with more than 10 people, the information will be on the street.” Finally, one purpose of the work was to identify those mutations that lead to greater transmissibility, so that they can be quickly detected during surveillance to help guide prevention efforts. I don’t think this can be done while simultaneously keeping those mutations a secret.


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