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March 26, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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The Danger of Truth

SUPERVIRUSES AND ACADEMIC FREEDOM

Science doesn’t kill people, people kill people. At least, that’s what the scientists at the heart of the H5N1 controversy are claiming. The furore over a Contagion-style ‘supervirus’ began in late 2011, when scientists from the US and the Netherlands created a new strain of the H5N1 virus (or bird flu, in laymen’s terms). While the bird flu panic has come and gone within the media, this strain is raising concerns because of its dangerous potential. Normally, bird flu is deadly, but its impact on people has been minimal because the virus doesn’t spread easily among humans. This is where the new strain differs. It can be spread through the air, meaning that if released, it would pose a formidable threat to human existence.

This is no exaggeration. For centuries, natural disasters and wars have bowed down to the devastating potential of killer viruses. Beginning with the Black Plague (75 million dead) to smallpox (300 million dead) to the current most dangerous virus, HIV (28 million dead), these small infectious agents have been a terrifying scourge, multiplying and attacking within our own cells. Luckily, science has always been on hand to assist us in finding vaccines, which sometimes results in the creation of ‘superviruses’ such as the new H5N1 strain.

However, the dilemma occurs when researchers decide to publish their findings. The cornerstone of scientific work–and of the academic community–is freedom of information. When findings are published openly, it allows researchers to be held accountable, exposing their work to debate and critique. This exposure also allows for new breakthroughs and discoveries, the importance of which is paramount when it comes to the collaborative nature of biosciences.

Unfortunately, this freedom isn’t held sacred by everyone. When the scientists involved with the H5N1 project submitted their work for publication, the US National Security Advisory Board for Biotechnology (NSABB) stepped in to censor the material. The reasoning behind this was that terrorists might use the publically-available information to create and weaponise ‘killer viruses’, which is not an altogether unlikely threat. Acting on the orders of the US government, NSABB’s chairman Paul Keim argued that the infrastructure necessary to deal with outbreaks of catastrophic proportions is simply not there yet.

Speaking exclusively to The Independent, he uses swine flu as an example of national unpreparedness “The very first time we knew that the swine flu virus [coming out of Mexico] was there, it was already in 18 countries. I’m not confident at all that we have the surveillance capability to spot an emerging virus in time to stop it.” Bird Flu has only affected 600 people worldwide, but new research shows that the virus is a mere five mutations away from becoming an airborne–and therefore highly contagious– pathogen. Current estimates are that if discharged, the virus’ mortality rate could be upward of 60 per cent. Fears such as these led to the creation of NASABB, which saw life after the anthrax outbreak of 2001, and this time, NASABB is taking no chances. It has recommended to the two leading journals in possession of the controversial research—science and nature—that key details be withheld from publication.

The scientific community has expressed outrage over what they consider to be an encroachment on their academic freedom. Many have rebuffed the claims that details need to be withheld, saying that the sensitive material had already been presented at conferences and was therefore already in the public domain. The scientists at the heart of the dispute have been more lenient. At the bequest of the World Health Organization, they–together with the editors of science and nature—have flown to Geneva to hear suggestions about how their research might be more ‘safely’ distributed. However, they remain convinced that their data is vital in the development of a possible H5N1 vaccine and could potentially even help surveillance teams and entities like NASABB in tracking the virus’ mutation.

Keim disagrees. “The argument that we need this information to make better vaccines and better drugs does not ring true,” he says, adding that “the very drugs they were using against this virus were the very same ones used against other flu viruses.

The drug-invention problem has nothing to do with having this virus to hand”. Despite personally believing that the virus has scientific merit and warrants further investigation, his voice is in the minority at NASABB. “I’m personally in favour of this research but that opinion is not universal on the board. Some people on the board wanted to stop this research and destroy the virus,” he says, almost defensively.

In spite of Keim’s attempts at diplomacy, the prevailing consensus among scientists seems to be that withholding crucial information would make the research significantly less helpful. And yet, the editors of science and nature themselves have stagnated the publishing process out of respect for the “NASABB process”. Speaking to the BBC, science editor Dr Bruce Alberts was adamant that both journals would not be reckless in their pursuit of academic freedom. Despite stating that their “default position is that we have to publish in complete form”, he’s also wary of undermining the relationship the scientific community has with its government allies, “Both science magazine and nature would both like to support the mechanism because it’s the best mechanism we’re ever going to get.” Albert’s efforts mirror Keim’s, and they represent the tensions of the freedom versus safety argument.

At its core, the government is really trying to censor what the journals can and can’t print, and this sets an unwelcome precedent. For years, advocates of press freedom have argued that governments use ‘national security’ as an excuse to smother information, and never more so than in this post-9/11 era. But how is the progression of scientific knowledge–which is vital to the advancement of humankind– supposed to happen when the government gets to decide which science is ‘good’ and which is ‘dangerous’? Furthermore, how can scientific innovation thrive if scientists are threatened with censorship and a potential ‘enemy of the state’ label? Sadly, no one has any answers.

There are, however, a few factors that should be taken in to account. When governments speak of threats, those threats should be real, and immense. On this, biological warfare passes muster. We should also be wary of political agendas, and ensure that dissenting voices can be heard either in the press, or in courtrooms. science’s response to the issue is to make information easier to access so that substantial steps can be taken to find vaccines and cures. The security sector’s is one of secrecy and confidentiality. As to whose approach is better—or safer—we hope to never find out the hard way.

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