H5N1 bird flu has caused serious disease and deaths in humans. More than half of the almost 600 patients have died. The virus has not, however, sparked off an influenza pandemic as it cannot spread efficiently from human to human. Research supervised by Ron Fouchier, a fellow virologist in the laboratory that I head at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, has shown that only a handful of mutations would allow the virus to spread efficiently among mammals.
These experiments seem to have rekindled the debate that has smouldered since the last bio-terrorist attacks took place in the U.S. more than a decade ago. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has asked the authors of the two scientific papers describing the mutations, as well as editors of Nature and Science, journals where the work should be published, to delete crucial details
Role of science
To me, the debate about the H5N1 mutations has become a debate about the role of science in society. Should this type of research be conducted at all, and if so, should all data generated by this research be published? The answer to the first question is undoubtedly “yes,” for a number of reasons. First of all, recommendations about the scientific research agenda by several international and national organisations have repeatedly stressed the necessity of this type of research. The major reason is that this type of top-level laboratory study is designed to make the world safer, as it will show what makes these viruses transmissible and how we can prepare the world for them. Eventually we may even develop measures to prevent such viruses from emerging. Globalisation apparently predisposes the world for the ever increasing emergence of new infectious disease threats and disasters. However, through state-of-the-art scientific research, we have been able to develop effective ways to combat them.
Obviously, the research on the transmissibility of H5N1 bird flu viruses should be — and has been carried out by — responsible scientists under adequately controlled conditions and safeguards with the appropriate administrative oversight. So, should all research data be published? Again, in my opinion, the answer is “yes.” In science, experiments and their results are shared so others can directly use them and advance the field. Therefore our experiments are part of an integrated and complex process that continuously leads towards a plethora of new knowledge. Follow-up studies will be needed. Slowing down the scientific process does not protect the public, instead it makes us more vulnerable.
The proposed “alternative” — disclosing the information to a committee of 20-30 approved experts — is unprecedented and conflicts with established and accepted scientific practice. It also raises more questions than it solves. How to establish a system that is completely safe? How to make sure the wrong people don't get the information and the right people do? Who should decide on which scientists to share the information with? To me, this proposal is neither practical nor sufficient. Instead, the international community must urgently discuss how to guarantee the best conditions for scientific discovery, while also minimising risk, keeping in mind that the principle bio-terrorist is nature. True science is based on verifiable facts and the desire to apply knowledge for the benefit of humankind. Science must never be impeded by fiction or fear. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012