Sunday, February 19, 2012

Papers in limbo

We won't talk about influenza until week 10 but the theme of a paper in Science this week is very pertinent to the biosafety topic this week -
Does Forewarned = Forearmed With Lab-Made Avian Influenza Strains?

H5N1 Influenza has a human mortality rate of over 50% but does not yet spread among humans. Two groups of scientists in investigating why this is have created strains that DO spread easily among ferrets (a common model for human drug strains). Should they be able to publish the results of their work?

Papers about the studies, stuck in limbo at Science and Nature, remain unpublished while scientists, journal editors, and public health officials weigh the benefits and risks of full disclosure.

Proponents of full disclosure, including the researchers who conducted the work, contend that knowing the genetic signatures of these potentially devastating viruses might prove pivotal to shoring up surveillance measures and controlling an emerging threat.

Maybe, say opponents in the other camp, but they stress that in the predominantly poor countries where H5N1 circulates, surveillance and control systems are too rudimentary, or nonexistent, to take advantage of the new knowledge. They worry that if published, that data could provide a recipe for bioterrorists to unleash a doomsday scenario.

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