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H5N1: Why Open the Stable Door?

Professor Paul Keim, who chairs the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, recently recommended the censoring of research that described the mutations which led to the transformation of the H5N1 bird-flu virus into a form that can be transmitted between humans through droplets in breath (in ferrets, the number of mutations required is frighteningly small – five). His reason is simple: the research would be a recipe book for bioterrorists.

Keim thinks, however, that such censorship will only delay the inevitable. The information will come out sooner or later, but at least governments might by then have developed and prepared sufficient stocks of vaccine and set in place other emergency measures to deal with a global pandemic.

This is not quite closing the stable door after the horse is bolted. It’s more like closing the farm gate, in the knowledge that eventually the horse will jump the gate and escape.

But this raises the question of why the stable door wasn’t bolted in the first place. In an article in Nature, the leader of one of the teams has said that the research was necessary to show that those experts who doubt the human transmissibility of H5N1 are wrong. But given that there is controversy here, governments should of course be doing what they have been doing: treating the possibility as a serious risk. In response to the charge that the research is dangerous, this same research leader’s response is that there is already a threat of mutation in nature. But threats don’t cancel one another, and nature is not revealing its secrets to bioterrorists. The researchers claim that their research was necessary for the development of a vaccine. Keim’s view is that this is quite implausible, since the drugs the scientists were using against their virus were the same ones used against others. If he’s right, a natural conclusion to draw is that the scientists should never have done the research in the first place. And, having done it, they should have kept quiet about its details and destroyed the virus. They might indeed have informed the media of their overall result, or some carefully restricted set of other researchers of the details of their research. But then of course they wouldn’t have been able to publish those details in top scientific journals.

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2 Comment on this post

    1. Thanks, David. I agree with the main conclusions in your excellent article. One rather obvious thing many scientists seem to forget (and this is relevant to your argument in favour of moral education for scientists) is that it's not enough for them to show that their research is better than no research at all. They have to show that their research is better than no other form of research. And it seems to me doubtful that the kinds of research where dual-use problems arise are better than all other possible research-programmes.

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