(This is a follow up to our original blog posting on February 2, 2012 entitled CBRN: Discerning the Dark Side of Data Sharing)
As the Lint Center reviewed previously, since December, the World Health Organization, has been determining the course of action regarding two studies that detailed the particulars and processes of two scientifically-mutated forms of the H5N1 bird flu virus. Though, it had been found that only a handful of mutated forms could allow the flu to be transmitted from animals to humans,[i] biosecurity experts feared that an unfettered release of the reports could be used by bioterrorists as the base-clearing double at the end of the game, a pandemic more deadly than the 1918 Spanish Influenza.[ii]
The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended the work be censored before it was published in two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science. WHO voiced its concerns, as well, leading to a 60 day research and publishing moratorium on the flu research.[iii] Conversely, leading scientists and public health officials, urged and voiced their frustration at the suspension of the research and release. Though being cognizant of the security risks, WHO assistant director-general for health security and environment, Keiji Fukuda, maintained that, “There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies.”[iv]
An expert group of bioethicists, the lead researchers of the two studies in question, scientific journals interested in publishing the research, funders of the research, countries who provided the virus, and directors from several WHO-linked laboratories specializing in influenza met on Friday, February 17th, to discuss what the next step regarding both the release and continuing research of the studies should be.[v] It was concluded that, “there must be a much fuller discussion of risk and benefits of research in this area and risks of virus itself.”[vi] In short, the experts are not releasing the reports, yet, having it under virtual lock and key and asking the two journals possessing the unreleased reports to destroy the copies.[vii]
The decision here is an interesting one, perhaps not because of the decision in itself but the polar views by biosecurity experts and those invested in the scientific development and pursuance of the research and its application to public health. To be sure, both sides have valid arguments, evidenced by the unprecedented moratorium on research directed by the WHO.
The question still stands as we posed in our last blog. With a dilemma as old as the beginning of research and development, how can we, in an increasingly technologically and progressive age, balance what we can do with what we should?
Some experts, when presented with H5N1 research dilemma, strongly advocated for a prior review process, maintaining the damage had mostly been done by the time the research was done and the reports were written.[viii] This “damage-has-been-done” assessment interestingly mirrors the sentiments of some scientists and historians after the atomic bomb had been created, that something had been created and released and that the technology could not be undone. Historically, we know that the advance of knowledge will happen. It can only be delayed in the short-term, and not only are we balancing ethical issues of should we, but the practical issue of, will someone else do it before us? In every high stakes game, risks must taken, but couldn’t the old adage that “offense wins games, but defense wins championships”[ix] apply here too?
*Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Lint Center Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Lint Center for National Security Studies, Inc. or any employee thereof. The Lint Center for National Security Studies, Inc. is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Lint Center Bloggers.
About the Authors:
Brittany Minder received her BA in International Relations from Stanford University and she serves as the Lint Center’s Public & External Affairs Associate.
Tim Coleman serves as the Center’s Director of Communications.
- Bird flu research results delayed. (2012, February 19). Retrieved from http://www.rte.ie/news/2012/0218/h5ni.html
- (2012, December 20). Should Research Into Potentially Deadly Biological Agents Be Barred Unless Approved by International Arbiters?Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/economist-asks/should-research-potentially-deadly-biological-agents-be-barred-unless-approved-intern
- Nebehayand, S., & Kelland, K. (2012, February 20). For Now, Bird Flu Papers Won’t Be Published. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/for-now-bird-flu-papers-wont-be-published/2012/02/17/gIQAesNoPR_story.html
- Public health, influenza experts agree h5n1 research critical, but extend delay. (2012, February 17). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2012/h5n1_research_20120217/en/index.html
- Evans, K. (2007, February 16). Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) Sign. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Avian_Influenza_(Bird_Flu)_Sign_-_geograph.org.uk_-_339930.jpg
[i]Nebehayand, S., & Kelland, K. (2012, February 20). For Now, Bird Flu Papers Won’t Be Published. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/for-now-bird-flu-papers-wont-be-published/2012/02/17/gIQAesNoPR_story.html
[iii] Nebehayand, S., & Kelland, K. (2012, February 20). For Now, Bird Flu Papers Won’t Be Published. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/for-now-bird-flu-papers-wont-be-published/2012/02/17/gIQAesNoPR_story.html
[v] Public health, influenza experts agree h5n1 research critical, but extend delay. (2012, February 17). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2012/h5n1_research_20120217/en/index.html
[vii] Nebehayand, S., & Kelland, K. (2012, February 20). For Now, Bird Flu Papers Won’t Be Published. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/for-now-bird-flu-papers-wont-be-published/2012/02/17/gIQAesNoPR_story.html
[viii] (2012, December 20). Should Research Into Potentially Deadly Biological Agents Be Barred Unless Approved by International Arbiters?Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/economist-asks/should-research-potentially-deadly-biological-agents-be-barred-unless-approved-intern