Policy ForumPublic Health and BIosecurity

The Obligation to Prevent the Next Dual-Use Controversy

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Science  17 Feb 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6070, pp. 802-804
DOI: 10.1126/science.1219668

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Summary

For the first time, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has recommended that research done by two separate groups be redacted, an unprecedented caution that has unleashed debate over the proper balance of global security, public health, and the integrity of science. Currently, the avian influenza virus H5N1 is not easily transmitted from human to human, but a high mortality rate in those who have been infected with H5N1 viruses has raised fears of possible naturally occurring mutations that would increase transmissibility (1). This concern prompted research conducted by Fouchier and colleagues and Kawaoka and colleagues, with funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), to understand the molecular characteristics underlying transmissibility. However, the NSABB found sufficient cause for concern over potential use of this research by terrorists looking to unleash, rather than prevent, a lethal influenza pandemic to warrant restrictions on access to critical technical details. Although Science and Nature agreed to redact the research for publication to help prevent the misuse of this science by hostile actors, they made that agreement contingent on establishment of a mechanism to allow appropriate researchers and public health officials access to the complete information.

  • * The author was a member of the committee that generated the Fink report (2).