Headline Bioethics: The balance of safety in publication of H5N1 research

September 3, 2013

[A printable version of this Headline Bioethics Commentary is available via this link]

Author: Nick McDonald

Clip: Experts delay call on releasing controversial H5N1 work

Date of story: 17th February 2012


Summary of story: In the period 2003–2011, 566 cases of people infected by bird flu worldwide were reported to WHO (2011), with 59% of the cases being fatal. The virus has been known to infect people since 1997 (Grady and Broad, 2011), but only through infected birds, and not via person-to-person transmission(Yong, 2012b). Herfst et al (2012) and Imai et al (2012) mutated H5N1 to see if it could acquire the mutations necessary for airborne transmission between ferrets (considered a good model for humans) in the wild. This research was due to be published in the journals Nature and Science, but the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) asked the journals to delay publication, and recommended that key methods should be omitted (Grady and Broad, 2011) due to fears of the virus being released “by error or by terror” (Keim, 2012) and the “potential risk of public harm to be of unusually high magnitude” (Berns, 2012). Eventually in March of 2012 the NSABB agreed that the two papers should be published in full (Yong, 2012a). The video from February 2012 reports on the decision to delay publication.

Discussion of ethical issues: The decision about whether or not to publish details of the process by which H5N1 could be render easier to transmit is a good example of a dual-use dilemma, defined by Atlas and Dando (2006: p276) as “the generation and dissemination of scientific knowledge that could be misapplied for biological weapons development and production”. Kuhlau et al (2011) argue that if a dual-use technology poses a legitimate threat, the science community is obliged to develop, implement and adhere to precautious measures to meet the concern. Read the rest of this entry »