Tuesday, March 13, 2012

To publish or not?

Some of you may have read about an interesting disease related debate that is going on right now and is attracting quite a lot of media attention. It concerns the H5N1 strain of influenza that appears to have a high mortality rate in people but is currently poorly transmitted between people (if it is even transmitted at all).

In 2011 two teams of scientists created mutant strains of H5N1 influenza (ie avian or bird flu) that could be more easily passed between mammals in a laboratory setting (ferrets are the animals of choice for flu studies apparently). Scientifically this is interesting research and could address several public health issues: can this strain become more easily transmitted without losing its virulence? Which changes should we watch out for? How many mutations does such a change require?

However as the papers were reviewed the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended that the results of the two studies should only be published in a redacted form. They advised that methods and details should be left out for fear the research could fall into the wrong hands and be used to create a pandemic that might kill tens of millions of people. This unprecedented move sparked a broader debate about censorship and responsibility in potentially dangerous research.

It also provoked some sensational headlines:
Controversial 'Armageddon' super virus recipe to stay secret - for now - Sydney Morning Herald

In a meeting last month the World Health organization came to a different conclusion. A panel of 22 experts  concluded that the mutant flu studies should be published in full. They argued that redaction would likely be ineffective and that the benefits outweighed the potential risks.

Nature have put together a web special on the H5N1 controversy that compiles a variety of papers, reports and commentary (and is also the source for this fantastic chicken image).

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