When scientists create the equivalent of a nuclear bomb in the form of a flu virus at a research lab, what happens to their findings? After months of a debate that pitted bio-security experts against influenza researchers, the scientific journal Nature answered the question by publishing highly anticipated and controversial research led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Using genetic manipulation, Kawaoka and his team created a strain of the virus of the bird flu virus, which caused a pandemic in 2009. The new strain can be passed through the air between ferrets, the closest animal to humans currently used by scientists in flu-transmission research. The first hints of Kawaoka’s work emerged last year, along with details of similar research led by Ron Fouchier at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, whose research is yet to be published at the journal Science.
The two studies led the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) in November, to ask Nature and Science to refrain from publishing parts of the research over fears that terrorists could develop bio-weapons. Researchers in the scientific community argued the studies would help develop a vaccine against the virus and improve tracking of its spread in real-life circumstances.
The editor in chief of Nature explained the publication of the controversial research, saying that censorship of academic research was problematic.
From the BBC:
Speaking for the first time on the issue, Dr Campbell said that the current process for establishing whether medical research should be censored was “very, very problematic”.
“If we are to go down the censorship route, how do you decide which researchers should get the sensitive information? And how can you realistically ensure that once it is in a university environment that it won’t go further?”