Sunday, November 27, 2011

The cutting-edge of research can be damned scary

A lab makes a virus that could kill half of every human living on the planet. What should be done with it, and who should have access to the technical information about it? Sounds like science fiction, right?

In fact, its creator, Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, first announced that he had accomplished this feat at an influenza conference in Malta in September. (The virus is an H5N1 bird flu strain which was genetically altered to become much more contagious.) Academics and bioterrorism experts are arguing about whether the research ought to have been done in the first place and whether to publish the "recipe" for producing the virus in the second place. RT reports:
"I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one," Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist who has worked on anthrax for many years, told Science Insider. "I don't think anthrax is scary at all compared to this."

Now Keim, who chairs the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), and other members of the body, have a very difficult decision to make. Fouchier wants his study to be published. So does virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who led similar research in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo, and reached comparable results. And it is up to NSABB to give them the green light.
Many academics and biosecurity experts are naturally cautious about releasing information which could provide any bioterrorist with a ready recipe to hold the world to ransom. Some argue that such work should never have been done in the first place and call for international monitoring of potentially harmful research.

"It's just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus. And it's a second bad idea for them to publish how they did it so others can copy it," believes Dr. Thomas Inglesby, a bioterrorism expert and director of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

However the very same data, if made available to the scientific community, could potentially allow humanity to prepare for an H5N1 pandemic, which Fouchier’s study has shown to be far more probable than was previously believed. Clamping down on freedom of information in the scientific domain may in the end leave us defenseless against the flu, should it arise naturally.
For more, see the report at NPR's blog here.

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