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

[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.

Many bioethical issues, such as those relating to the creation, modification of termination of life, are strongly influenced by a priori personal judgement of what is intrinsically right or wrong; that is to say deontological factors. Considerations regarding the publication of the H5N1 research are more strongly influenced by consequentialist ethics, particularly the balance between security and transparency. As Harris (2012) has noted, although the intentional mutation of viruses is a modern issue, the underlying philosophical conundrum bears comparison to John Stuart Mill’s 1859 work ‘On Liberty’, which is concerned with the outcomes of the relationship between authority and liberty.

Deontological issues do have a bearing with regard to the public distrust of or scepticism about science. This kind of view is illustrated from some of the online comments in a New York Times article relating to this news story (Grady and Broad, 2011). Comments such as “curiosity killed the cat”, “that scientist needs round-the-clock protection; knowledge has become a dangerous thing”, and “once again, the human animal has proven to be the stupidest of all living creatures. We sow the seeds of our own destruction — funded by the NIH and then distribute the recipe to others…” illustrate a view that science has gone too far. Although these kinds of arguments have little bearing directly on the debate over publication, they demonstrate the need to encourage informed public engagement on the issue.

Concerns about biosafety are not unprecedented. In 1975, the Asilomar conference on the potential biohazards of recombinant DNA (Berg et al, 1975), decided that it was appropriate to bring an end to the voluntary moratorium on work of recombinant DNA work, and to permit resumption, albeit with restraints based on the level of risk. Deliberate attempts to use organisms for bioterrorism include: the 2001 Anthrax attacks in the US (Jernigan et al, 2002); ordering of vials of plague agent Yersinia pestis by a white supremacist in 1995 (Thomas, 2001); and attempts by Aum Shinrikyo to fulfil apocalyptic prophecies in the 1990s in Japan using Bacillus anthracis (Takahashi, 2004). It is worth noting that the failure of Aum Shinrikyo’s bioweapons program was principally due to the difficulty in acquiring strains (Rosenau, 2001).

As has been noted elsewhere (e.g. Harris, 2012; Yong, 2012c), H5N1 with enhanced transmissibility would not be a viable weapon for terrorists seeking a determined outcome; it would kill indiscriminately and would be almost impossible to control. That said, it is still possible that someone seeking devastation but unconcerned about the potential to restore order, may try to weaponise bird flu. A degree of caution is therefore warranted, and the potential threat should be regarded as legitimate. Nevertheless, as history has shown, other terrorist methods have generally been more successful than biological ones.

Putting the case for publication, Faden and Karron (2012) note that in order for benefits to accrue, research needs to be shared internationally with scientists and experts in multiple groups. At the same time, potential risks need to be reviewed by international bodies with a range of expertise. Harris (2012) argues that this issue has been framed wrongly in the popular media as an example of scientists behaving irresponsibly and requiring the imposition of restrictions to stop them making a grave error. He argues that the true issue stems out of the obligation of the state to secure the safety of its people. The ethics of this issue comes down to whether the greater safety of people lies in the free publication of science or in censorship.

It is my view that the risks inherent in this research were sensible risks, ultimately necessary for public safety. Whilst there is undoubtedly concern that the research may be misused, that seems a minor threat compared to the benefits of understanding the nature of the virus prior to the occurrence of any natural change that might achieve the same effect. On balance, the threat to public safety from exposure to an evolved version of bird flu, about which we have insufficient knowledge due to a lack of research, is greater than the threat of bioterrorism. As Perez (2012) notes the pursuit of knowledge is key to human resilience. I believe it was right to publish these results.



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Yong E. (2012c) The risks and benefits of publishing mutant flu studies. Nature News. 2 March [accessed 09/02/13]

Headline Bioethics Commentaries are short articles on the bioethical issues raised by a story in the news. The articles are authored by second year undergraduates at the University of Leicester (UK). A printable version of this article is available via this link.

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