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Apr 3, 2012Science and Technology
Research on altered H5N1 virus uncensored

An Indian health worker culls a rooster during an avian flu outbreak.The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has reversed its decision on censoring research on the altered H5N1 avian flu virus. The NSABB spent over 200 hours reviewing the research and claims that it reversed their decision because (1) there is no information within the research that should be able to be misused for the development of biological weapons and (2) new evidence has emerged that suggests the research could aid in international efforts to prepare for a potential pandemic.

The debate over the censorship of research occurred at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 when Yoshihiro Kawaoka and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison were able to modify the H5N1 virus by combing the H5 haemagglutinin (HA) gene with genes from the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus. The researchers were able to mutate the virus into being transmittable among mammals.

The goal of this work was to track potential mutation paths of the H5N1 virus before it mutates in the wild. This research could potentially give scientists a jump on developing cures and vaccines long before the virus becomes a pandemic.

Unfortunately, security experts assumed that this new information could possibly lead to countries or terrorists developing new, human transmittable viruses that could leave millions dead, so security experts got the United States government to censor the research, along with scientists agreeing to hold a 60 day research moratorium on the altered H5N1 virus, until a security review could be accomplished and, perhaps, new guidelines for reviewing potentially dangerous research could be established.

The 60 day moratorium came and went, and the researchers agreed to give government more time in developing guidelines.

Finally, the NSABB reversal came after it was clear that while the altered H5N1 virus was highly transmittable among mammals (mainly ferrets), the disease was not particularly lethal. The researchers, in fact, purposely made the disease less lethal. This means that the research could probably not be used to develop a super-virus that kills everyone.

However, a more pervasive argument for not censoring the research came from the World Health Organization (WHO).  The WHO has been working with Indonesia for year to share the H5N1 virus with researchers around the world. Indonesia has several deaths of the H5N1 virus, one as recently as March 9, 2012. The WHO argued that censoring the research would make countries like Indonesia less likely to share vital resources, like H5N1 virus samples, in the future. This corroboration is important in not only monitoring the disease, but it is the corroboration among world entities that has the best chance of developing and producing cures and treatments.

The reversal by the NSABB is guided by the new policy established for dangerous research called, The U.S. Government Policy of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern from the Office of Biotechnology Activities. These new guidelines give the government greater oversight into potential dangerous research, and the guidelines allow the government to review potentially dangerous research long before it becomes publishable.

Luckily for world research collaboration, the NSABB decided to allow this research to be published. However, only the future will tell how the world community, or researchers for the matter, will react if future research is censored, which goes against the modern ethos of science.

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