Restriction or responsibility? U-M researcher explains decision to withhold bird flu research from public

Why bird flu data might be dangerous

Despite a concern about restricting scientific knowledge, the risks of publishing potentially dangerous bird flu research outweigh the benefits, says a U-M virologist and member of a federal advisory board that recently made the recommendation that details of the research not be published by two prominent scientific journals.

After two studies detailed how the H5N1 virus, or the avian flu, could potentially become transmissible between humans, there was concern that, if made public, the details of the research could be used by terrorists or others bent on harming a large number of people, says U-M virologist Michael Imperiale, a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.

The NSABB reviewed the submitted research and requested details of the experiments be withheld from the journals Science and Nature, based on concerns regarding public safety.

“If this information on how to make the virus transmissible got into the wrong hands, then that could be a huge problem,” Imperiale says. “Because worldwide, we’re just not prepared to deal with an influenza pandemic. Better to be cautious now, and let the details out later when we’re more prepared, whereas if you let it out now, you can’t pull it back if there’s a problem.”

The board’s explanation of its recommendation was published today online in Science and Nature. The manuscripts remain unpublished until the issue of how to disseminate the information to those with a legitimate need to know is resolved.

The board’s decision has caused a stir in the research community because of the precedent it creates for restricting the availability of potentially risky, yet beneficial knowledge. Imperiale says the board’s decision was a difficult one, and the concerns of limiting research were not taken lightly.

However, he says, the responsibility to public health and safety outweighed the concerns in this instance.

“We have to look at the world in which we live; we know there are individuals who do want to do harm to mankind for whatever reason,” Imperiale says. “We have to be aware that as scientists we have a responsibility to the public. We’re doing this research to benefit the public so we owe it to them to show we’re behaving responsibly.”

Imperiale said the research details will be available to those who can use them to further the science and safety surrounding bird flu pandemics.

“It’s important to know what types of changes or mutations would allow the virus to become transmissible and to allow legitimate scientists an opportunity to follow up on this research,” he says. “Our best defense against terrorism is a strong offense. If we can move the science forward then we will be prepared to deal with all these things.”

Ultimately, Imperiale says the scientific research community must be more aware of the responsibility it has to the public, and perhaps this incident will increase that awareness.

“We want to show we’re thinking about these issues throughout the research process and I think that’s the thing that will hopefully change in the community,” he says. “Maybe this particular incident is an eye-opener to the scientific community that we really need to be more engaged with the public because of the special responsibility that we have as scientists.”

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