Don’t censor influenza research

2 February 2012

Howard Markel, Professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, in the New York Times:

The censorship of influenza research will do little to prevent its misuse by evildoers — and it may well hinder our ability to stop influenza outbreaks, whether natural or otherwise, when they do occur. In this case, censorship is too little, too late. The data generated by one of the research teams was already presented at a conference in Malta in September, where copies of the paper were distributed. But even if the data weren’t already available, the key details could likely be inferred from other information that is already available.

Dr. Markel also agrees that influenza H5N1 virus would not be a good terrorist weapon:

Even if terrorists got their hands on the new data, it’s not certain they could weaponize the virus: no one knows for certain that the virus’s transmissibility and virulence in ferrets means transmissibility and virulence in humans. In any event, the influenza virus, highly variable in its power and spread, is not an optimal terrorist weapon, not least because no one would know for sure if it was unleashed by a terrorist or natural forces.

The implications of the H5N1 story go far beyond ferrets:

In the years since the 9/11 attacks, we’ve witnessed a disturbing trend in the oversight of sensitive science. […] Several prominent scientists, including Donald Kennedy, the former editor of Science, have publicly worried that the federal government is thwarting scientific advancement.

The action by the NSABB has propelled us full-tilt into this controversy. Their incorrect decision to censor the influenza H5N1 data not only will inhibit work on this important virus, but will have far-reaching consequences for scientific research. To this day I cannot understand why the NSABB did not more thoughtfully consider not only the data, but the future of science in coming to their decision.

Thanks to Dr. Markel for writing the Op-Ed I’ve been meaning to put together for a long time.

Related:

The NSABB speaks on influenza H5N1

H5N1 facts, not fear

Moratorium on influenza H5N1 transmission research

Palese: Don’t censor live-saving science

N.Y. Times: H5N1 ferret research should not have been done

Should we fear avian H5N1 influenza?

Ferreting out influenza H5N1

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  • http://twitter.com/HorisOnoma Horis Onoma

     I’ve experiments to run,

    there is research to be done….

    … on the people who are still alive.

  • gsgs

     > Even if terrorists got their hands on the new data, it’s not certain
    they could
     > weaponize the virus:

    ahh, “not certain”. How reassuring.

     > no one knows for certain that the
    virus’s transmissibility and virulence in ferrets
     > means transmissibility
    and virulence in humans.

    no one knows anything for certain outside mathematics. But it is apparently
    considered likely (>50%) by most experts, including Fouchier.

     > In any event, the influenza virus,  highly
    variable in its power and spread,
     > is not an optimal terrorist weapon,
    not least because no one would know
     > for sure if it was unleashed by a
    terrorist or natural forces.

    not for sure, but mucn evidence, if wanted. And that makes it even a better
    terrorist weapon : the terrorist can choose whether to keep the origin
    secret or not (by publishing the original virus in advance (in encrypted form))