AirTalk for February 2, 2012

Bird flu research – science for good or evil

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

Rosa Antonez packages pasteurized eggs at the National Pasteurized Eggs (NPE) processing facility in Lansing, Illinois. The pasteurization process destroys viruses including Avian Influenza, also known as bird flu, and harmful bacteria including salmonella.

This week, a federal agency on biosecurity likened new bird-flu research to nuclear-bomb experiments. The risky research was being conducted by academic teams at the University of Wisconsin and in the Netherlands.

The researchers wanted to learn how a deadly avian flu could mutate into a virus transmissible from mammal-to-mammal. Their success at mutagenizing the highly pathogenic avian H5N1 alarmed many in the scientific community. As a consequence, the researchers were pressured to halt their work last month.

In a statement published Tuesday in “Nature,” the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity explained its worries in a statement. "[T]hese scientific results also represent a grave concern for global biosecurity, biosafety and public health." The NSABB characterizes the work as “dual-use research” – science that could be used for good or bad purposes. The experimenters were also about to publish their findings in "Science" and "Nature."

A plethora of experts in virology and public health asked that the study results be largely redacted. Their worry is the science could get into the wrong hands. Moreover, some experts believe this research was too dangerous in the first place. Dr. Tom Inglesby, a leading infectious-disease doctor, argued in “The New York Times:” “The potential benefits of this research do not justify the potential dangers, so the research should be discontinued. While in almost all circumstances basic research should be fully disseminated in the science community, in this case the results should not be published in a way that allows them to be replicated by others.”

But how easy would it be to use this science for evil? Some of the contrarians believe these fears are unfounded and science is being mixed up with politics. Could these studies really be used to harm the public effectively? Is there a point at which science should be reined in – even if it could benefit humanity? And who should have the power to rein it in? How dangerous were these experiments? Were the researchers taking all possible precautions? Will these influenza researchers be forced to stop their work?

Guests:

Dr. David A. Relman, MD, Professor of Medicine and Microbiology, Stanford University; Voting Member, National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity; Chief, Infectious Diseases Section, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System

Philip Alcabes, professor of public health at School of Public Health at Hunter College, City University of New York; author of "Dread: How Fear and Fantasy have fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu"


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