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Freedom from interference has been one of the mainstays of science for the better part of, well, centuries. But a debate is going on now in the world’s scientific and policy-making community that could very well change the world. The issue: how much freedom do we allow scientists to have when playing with the world’s most deadly viruses?
In September 2011 a team of scientists based at the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands presented a paper at an influenza conference where they described how they had genetically manipulated the H5N1 avian influenza virus (also known as ‘Bird Flu’) into an airborne strain that could potentially infect humans. The study, which was funded by the US National Institute of Health (NIH) as part of a broader pandemic preparedness funding scheme, described how the scientists had developed an airborne strain that would retain the virus’ usual fatality rate of 60 per cent. Following the conference, the scientists then submitted their findings to a top ranking scientific journal.
At the same time half a world away, another team of scientists based at the University of Wisconsin had conducted a similar study (also funded by the NIH) and submitted their findings to a competing journal. Given the link to U.S. funding agencies, both studies were reviewed by the United States’ National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) that had been established following the September 2001 anthrax letter attacks. After some months of deliberation, in December 2011 the NSABB requested that certain information be removed from the publications so that, 'the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm'.
The NSABB’s request—which, importantly, was not legally binding—has divided the scientific community and highlighted the paucity of existing international regulation over what scientists can and should be allowed to research. On one side, the Board’s recommendation could be seen as a bid to censure scientific independence and freedom. On the other, it could be interpreted as a genuine attempt to protect the public from the risk that the virus might be accidentally (or intentionally) released from the laboratory, or re-created by terrorists. While the scientists involved in the studies have reluctantly agreed to withdraw certain information from the publications and institute a 60-day moratorium on further H5N1 research, it has only postponed the inevitable question of what to do about research of this nature?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has hesitantly weighed into the debate noting that such research is vitally important but that it was 'also deeply concerned about the potential negative consequences'. Later this week, a small group of experts will attend a WHO meeting in Geneva to discuss the issues. The names of the experts invited to the meeting are being kept confidential, as have the details about the agenda and discussion items, but the WHO has been quick to emphasise that all participants 'have a direct relationship in one sense or another to the [H5N1] studies'. While confidentiality is important to avoid the risk that the invited scientists would be pressured, there is still something distasteful in their identities being kept secret, particularly in an age of openness and transparency, and given their decisions may have wide-reaching effects.
Yet even if this current dilemma is able to be solved and the research is published in some format, there is no doubt that we will face similar if not the same moral dilemma again in the near future, given how fast the boundaries of human understanding are being pushed back. Indeed, ethical questions emerge with each new major discovery, but we as a community have yet to fully engage with this debate. How much are we willing to risk to allow science to proceed unhindered? In an age of unfettered information and terrorism, do the former principles of scientific freedom now need to be revisited? Where is the public voice in determining whether potentially dangerous research should proceed? Should there be checks and balances? And if so, who and how is this decided? What safety measures are needed given that research groups now collaborate internationally? These questions will not be resolved at the WHO meeting on the 16-17 February, but we need to start having the discussion, and urgently.
Science cannot be removed from society, nor should it be. The emergence of new life sciences technology and the fantastic advances that are being made cannot afford to be divorced from questions whether such research is always entirely appropriate. There is a desperate need for public input into this debate, and there are critical questions that society-as-a-whole must discuss and, perhaps most importantly, be allowed to discuss without accusations of impropriety. Clandestine meetings, even if conducted by technocratic organizations like the WHO, are no longer appropriate. These are political decisions—not scientific—and society has a right to participate in the conversation.