Back in December of last year news broke that two groups of scientists, one at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands and one at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, created a mutation of the H5N1 avian flu virus that could potentially be contagious among humans (click here for one of the initial reports). Based on the reported cases of people infected by the avian flu virus, the mortality rate of the H5N1 virus is estimated to be 60%. This far exceeds that of the ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918 that killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. The accuracy of the 60% mortality rate of the avian flu has been debated by scientists, but even if the true mortality rate ends up 10% of the current estimate, H5N1 would be 3 times more fatal than the Spanish virus.
News covering the incident not only centered on the creation of this potentially dangerous strain of the avian flu virus but also on the intervention by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to ask the journals to put a temporary hold on the publication of the article and a moratorium on related research until scientists and government officials can assess the risk of publishing the findings from the group from Erasmus. This was a rare intervention by the NSABB. When a group from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York published studies on the reconstruction of the Spanish flu virus back in 2005 there was nothing from the NSABB.
So the question still stands: how much of the study will they make public, if any at all?
A Nature news blog post, as well many others, covered a recent debate on Feb. 2 led by the New York Academy of Science on the issue of how much of the paper should be publicly made available. There were proponents on either side of the debate, some calling for complete retraction of the paper, others calling for complete publication of the details. The debate, in my opinion, boiled down to an argument of whether details about the study will inherently harm or benefit society. On one side, one argued that the details from the paper can be used by the evils of the world to create a deadly virus that can potentially be released into the population, killing many, many people. On the other side, one argued that mutations, like those that the scientists induced, happen in nature and a contagious form of the avian flu, like the H5N1 can appear without human involvement. If we want to be prepared for such a time, you need as many researchers studying H5N1 to better understand the virus… There’s a lot of uncertainty and speculation surrounding the issue, and as this article states, there appears to be very little in terms of international guidelines when such a situation crops up.
As a scientist, it’s beat into my head that we need to be transparent with all our methods and conclusions, for the sake of the integrity of science. If we’re asked for the data we used in a study, we make it available so that others can test whether they come to the same conclusions.
But what happens when the knowledge can be potentially harmful to society? What does one do? When there is uncertainty to what the study results mean in terms of our protection or our harm, who is involved in the decision making process?
I can imagine scientists will be necessary to interpret the results in increasingly complex situations, but who else? There will be uncertainties about how the results will be used, so the decision makers (i.e. governmental advisers, journal publishers) will eventually have to decide on a course of action. Are there others who need to be involved?