Bioethics Blogs

Censoring influenza research: gagging scientists could put lives at risk

Scientists could reconstruct the work on the avian flu virus from clues, making suppression of future work counterproductive. AAP

Researchers working on a pathogenic strain of avian flu (H5N1) have agreed to pause their work for 60 days so international experts can discuss the safest ways to proceed. But it’s important to ensure that this voluntary moratorium doesn’t provide a platform for censorship of the research which has already faced calls for suppression of data from a US government agency.

Censorship of certain aspects of the research was proposed in the United States by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), ostensibly in the interest of national security. The threat of such action led to urgent calls by scientists for globalization of the discussion. But arguments about the level of containment required for the work itself, and arguments about the suppression of publication have become confounded in the discussions of the research’s implications.

Wrong mutations?

It’s even been asserted that censorship won’t harm the health of our community because “limited benefit” will flow from this research – this is incorrect. Genetic changes made to the virus in this and earlier studies, which made changes based on those found in the 1918 “Spanish flu”, are based on naturally occurring mutations of the virus that have been implicated, by association (but not proven until recently), to cause severe illness in humans and animals.

It’s correct, as bioethicist Michael Selgelid pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald that novel influenza viruses could conceivably evolve along unexpected paths, different from the ones tested in the work in question.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.