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Opinion Pieces Discuss Bird Flu Research Controversy

In December 2011, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) advised that two research teams that had genetically altered the H5N1 virus to be easily transmissible among ferrets redact some of the research details before publishing in the journals Science and Nature. The board’s primary concern was that the altered virus could possibly be used as a bioweapon. Scientists in January voluntarily suspended bird flu research for 60 days, and the WHO is expected to hold a summit later this month to discuss the issue. The following are summaries of two opinion pieces on the topic.

  • Scott Rosenstein, Foreign Policy’s “The Call”: Rosenstein, a director in Eurasia Group’s global health practice, says the 60-day moratorium “probably won’t be enough time for policymakers and scientists to strike a balance between security and pandemic preparedness.” After examining how the virus could be used as a weapon, or how the accidental release of a genetically altered virus could do harm, Rosenstein concludes, “So while the doomsday scenario remains a fat tail risk, improved international coordination will likely remain challenging, as a diverse set of actors navigate mostly uncharted political and scientific territory” (2/1).
  • Howard Markel, New York Times: “The censorship of influenza research will do little to prevent its misuse by evildoers — and it may well hinder our ability to stop influenza outbreaks, whether natural or otherwise, when they do occur,” Markel, a history of medicine professor at the University of Michigan, writes. “A terrorist-generated pandemic is a worrisome threat, but there are reasons not to be overly preoccupied with the prospect” because “[a] naturally occurring influenza pandemic is a far graver threat,” he states, adding that “censorship of influenza research makes it harder to predict, treat and prevent such pandemics.” Markel concludes that until the government decides how it will classify such data and whether “such recommendations inhibit future scientific research, … we have reason to be concerned about any recommendations the federal government makes to censor science” (2/1).

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