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 »


Headline Bioethics: GM chickens offer solution to bird flu problem?

January 4, 2013

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

Author: Rachel Bell

BBC News Clip: Chickens that cannot spread bird flu developed

Date of story: 13th January 2011

Summary of story:   Scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge have created genetically modified chickens that are unable to transmit the H5N1 “bird flu” virus between individuals. This effect was generated by inserting genetic information coding for a ‘decoy’ RNA hairpin molecule that acts as an inhibitor for the RNA polymerase enzyme required for replication of the flu virus (Lyall et al, 2011). It has been suggested that this approach may offer a means to reduce the extent to which bird populations act as a reservoir for flu and other diseases.

Discussion of ethical issues:  This story presents ethical tension on two levels; the possible benefits and complications for the chickens themselves, but also the implications for the human population. Laws relating to the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) vary in different parts of the world. In the UK, the law covering the creation and use of GMOs is set out by the Health and Safety Executive. This requires any experimentation to undergo strict risk assessment, notification of the authorities regarding any GM activity, and total clarity and public availability of information gathered by the research (HSE, 2011). In this case, Sang and her team at the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh have complied with these regulations and the necessary details are included in the final paper (Lyall et al, 2011). Read the rest of this entry »

Bird flu and uncertainty – deciding what makes the news

July 22, 2008

For a number of years in the 1990s, but sadly not in the recent past, the BBC had an annual review of the year programme called Decisive Moments,  in which key events from the preceding twelve months were illustrated via reference to still photos. I was always fascinated by the stories behind those images, how they came to be taken from the vantage point that they were, why that frame rather than, say, the next one taken, and so on.

When I finally got around to listening to a recording of the Radio 4 programme Inside Stories, I was captivated with the same fascination. In the series, Guardian journalist Steve Hewlett discusses with colleagues how and why the media choose to cover particular news stories and the angle that they take on them.  In an episode on bird flu, first broadcast on February 5th 2008, Hewlett talks with Charles Clover (Environment editor at the Daily Telegraph), Sarah Mukherjee (BBC Environment correspondent), Simon Pearson (Times) and Michael Pollitt (Eastern Daily Press) and traces the unfolding history of UK coverage of bird flu from the 1997 outbreak of H5N1 in Hong Kong poultry, through to the infection at Bernard Matthews’ Norfolk turkey farm in 2007. They consider the conflagrations that occurred, with SARS, H5N1 and the overdue flu pandemic all rolling into one in the mind of the public, and how the over-the-top reporting of a dead swan in Cellardyke, Scotland and the mis-handling of the Bernard Matthews story may actually have brought us to a point where people are better able to distinguish truth from hyperbole. Throughout, the underlying issue is really one of how the media copes with uncertainty.

Sadly, no online recording of the programme is available, but a transcript of the programme can be read here. BUFVC member can obtain a copy via the back-up service, quoting TRILT ID 007CFCC7.

Bird flu – The Influence

April 24, 2007

(Warning – contains plot spoilers!) Telling the story of a bird flu outbreak in the fictional Sussex village of Kelstone, The Influence is written by Sebastian Baczkiewicz , writer in residence at the BBC.  The play raises interesting questions about how infection might have surfaced and spread in a local community (brought in by wild ducks, and spread by an inquisitive cat to its owner and children who liked to stroke it on the way home from school, as it happens) and how the authorities would respond in order to stop the epidemic becoming a pandemic.

The Influence is 45 minutes long, and was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on February 21st 2007.  There is probably too little concrete science in it to justify use in a Biology lesson, and there are no obvious clips to use as discussion starters.  It may, however, be useful as the grist for a creative writing project with students of English.  A recording is available from the BUFVC (TRILT identifier 00612763).