A U.S. government panel has concluded that findings from two avian flu studies can be published even though there is a risk that the work could be misused by governments or terrorists to create biological weapons. The weight of the panel’s expert opinion is that the “real and present danger” of naturally occurring influenza poses a greater threat than the potential for acts of terrorism that use the work. This is precisely the sort of judgment that the public relies on experts to make. We should defer to their conclusions.
The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity triggered an international controversy last December when it asked researchers to withhold from publication two studies that outlined ways to make the H5N1 bird flu virus transmittable via human-to-human contact. The virus cannot be transmitted this way in nature; the artificially induced mutation makes this possible and the virus much more lethal.
The prospect of terrorists misusing the research for their own purposes prompted considerable soul-searching among the scientists; the publishers of the two research papers halted publication to let a distinguished group of experts debate the issue.
They met in February under the auspices of the World Health Organization and a majority of the 22 public-health specialists decided that the free flow of data was needed to help identify the potential of a mass outbreak of the virus — an outbreak that could result in hundreds of millions of deaths worldwide. The group consensus was that it was much more important to get this information out to scientists to allow them to work on the problem for the good of public health.
This is a difficult decision. While some may disagree that the risks are not worth courting, that is not the experts’ conclusion. And it is moments like these that we need to rely most on expert opinion. Only they can properly assess risk and reward. Now, governments should follow up — as the U.S. government is — so that there is international coordination to ensure such research is not misused. Equally important is inculcating a culture of safety and ethical behavior among scientists. The line between safe science and bioterrorism is a fine one; we must ensure that it is not erased by recklessness.