Beware of the birds: Greg Petsko on H5N1

When is it right to censor science? In a recently published BMC Biology Comment article (covered in this blog by Penelope Austin), Peter Doherty and Paul Thomas argued that, in the case of the H5N1 "bird flu" virus, censorship is both undesirable and futile.

Greg PetskoThe current hoopla surrounding the elucidation of mutations conferring human-to-human transmissibility to H5N1 (in research performed independently by two labs) and, more to the point, requests by a US government authority to redact the findings, also caught the attention of Genome Biology's resident columnist Greg Petsko.

While Petsko's column, published in our February issue, shares some observations with the highly readable BMC Biology Comment, he arrives at a different conclusion: the recipe-for-pandemic mutations should not be published, chiefly because of how such a publication would be perceived by the public. He believes that the popular imagination is fertile ground for anti-science paranoia, and to ignore opposition amongst the public toward such data dangerously fuels this tendency, and could promote a damaging long term alienation with science.

In fact, Petsko takes his argument one step further. Worrying about censorship at the publication stage is seeking to intervene too late in the pipeline – the real question is whether research of potential use to those who wish to do harm should be performed in the first place? Petsko thinks not, although Doherty and Thomas claim that there is little point in restricting how or whether this research is performed in respectable laboratories, as the experimental approach could be readily reproduced – free of regulations – by anyone interested in exploiting H5N1 mutations for malevolent means.

Both articles provide plenty of food for thought; depressingly, they both also paint a picture in which little could really be done to prevent a determined individual or organization from acquiring a pandemic-ready H5N1 strain, and that any amount of government regulation will ultimately be impotent in the face of this. Doherty and Thomas reassure us that it would not make sense for a terrorist to develop a bird flu weapon – but perhaps this ignores our duty to be mindful of the nihilists, such as the Aum Shinrikyo cult cited by Petsko, who were responsible for bioattacks on the Tokyo subway.

See also: our February issue contains another article on the subject of government and science, in an Editorial (now happily obsolete) commenting on the Research Works Act

View the latest posts on the On Biology homepage