WHO Weighs In on Avian Flu Research Controversy

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 22 2012 5:14 PM

WHO Weighs In on Avian Flu Research Controversy

136465948
A pigeon stands next to the Hong Kong flag.

Photo by Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images

Since December, a debate over whether researchers should publish controversial bird-flu studies has held the attention of the international scientific community. The United States' National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, concerned that the information could be used to create a biological weapon, urged that some information from two studies be withheld from publication. The researchers, and the journals Nature and Science, agreed to a moratorium while international players could weigh the pros and cons. But in a surprise move, the World Health Organization came out last week in favor of publishing the results, albeit not immediately. According to Nature:

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

The studies, which created forms of H5N1 that can spread between ferrets through airborne transmission, are likely to be published in a few months. The 22 experts at the meeting, mainly flu researchers, believe that the delay is needed to explain the benefits of the work to the public, and allay concerns about its safety. Meanwhile, a 60-day moratorium on similar research will be extended until a system is put in place to review levels of biosafety and biosecurity. To that end, the WHO intends to convene international discussions among regulators and other bodies in the next few months.
Advertisement

The U.S. push to “develop a mechanism to disseminate the full papers to researchers and health officials on a need-to-know basis” was deemed “impractical.” However, a security-law expert from Indiana University, David Fidler, tells Nature that the “publication deadlock” still remains, however: “Most of the meeting’s participants appear to have rejected the US position … but [have] agreed to the extended moratorium and publication delay in the hope that the US government will change its mind.”

The two studies in question were carried out by scientists from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and the University of Wisconsin. The work is controversial because for the first time, researchers were able to transmit the deadly H5N1 between mammals. So far, avian flu has occurred almost entirely in humans who came into contact with birds. However, scientists fear that it could someday mutate to be passed easily between humans—and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity worries that a terrorist could use the ferret research to hasten that process, with deadly consequences.

In a rather irritated-sounding editorial today, the New Scientist argues that this discussion has distracted the international scientific community from the more realistic danger of an influenza pandemic. The time spent in this debate should instead have been focused on creating a universal flu vaccine, the science magazine says. “If half the energy that went into seeing bioterrorists behind every Petri dish was expended on overcoming these obstacles, the squabble over publishing H5N1 research would become what it should be: purely academic.”

Read more in Nature.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM The Global Millionaires Club Is Booming and Losing Its Exclusivity
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 21 2014 12:40 PM Asamkirche: The Rococo Church Where Death Hides in Plain Sight
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM George Tiller's Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Doctor, Claims Right of Free Speech
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.