Should Scientists Keep What They Know About Bird Flu a Secret?

The Atlantic Wire
Should Scientists Keep What They Know About Bird Flu a Secret?
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Should Scientists Keep What They Know About Bird Flu a Secret?

Two research groups have "reluctantly" agreed to censor their research papers about avian flu over concerns that the information they reveal could be used by terrorists to create a deadly plague. The two teams, working independently, had submitted papers to the journals Science and Nature, though they are still under review and not yet been published. Their research showed how genetic mutations in the H5N1 virus could create a strain of flu that would be highly contagious to humans and extremely difficult to treat, leading to a pandemic that could potentially kill millions of people.

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The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has asked for certain key details to be left out of the reports over fears that they would provide a recipe on how to manipulate the genome and create a airborne superbug. Right now, the H5N1 virus is hard for humans to contract and even harder to pass on, but is extremely deadly when it takes hold. Only 600 people have been known to contract the disease, but more than half of those died.

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Both Science and Nature have agreed to the changes, but only on the conditions that the government make the data available to legitimate researchers who want to study the flu. The doctors themselves have also given into the request, but one team demanded the right to voice their objections in a separate editorial explaining their "genuflection." Many scientists object to any interference in the dissemination of their work and feel that the spread of information is more important than the risk that it might be misused. Even if it were used for nefarious purposes, other doctors would need access to those same reports in order to fight back against any new strains of the disease.

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It's also unclear that redaction would make any difference. Much of the research has already been presented at conferences and is available in review copies of the study. Anyone with the capability and know-how to manipulate the data, even for terrible ends, would likely be able to gain legitimate access to it anyway. While the concern is genuine, both journals feel it's incumbent on the U.S. government to prove they can create a restricted system that makes any sense.

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The reports comes on the same day that Hong Kong health officials slaughtered 17,000 chickens after one was found to be infected with the H5N1 virus. Most of the death from avian flu have occurred in the area, though the last recorded case of human infection in Hong Kong was in 2010.

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