In December 2011 the scientific world was taken aback by an odd request. The American government, in the shape of the country’s National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), called on the world’s two leading scientific journals to censor research. Nature and Science were about to publish studies by researchers who had been tinkering with H5N1 influenza, better known as bird flu, to produce a strain that might be able to pass through the air between people. The NSABB fretted that were the precise methods and detailed genetic data to fall into the wrong hands, the consequences would be too awful to contemplate. They suggested that only the broad conclusions be made public; the specifics could be sent to vetted scientists only….
The WHO, for its part, said in a statement to Science that research like that of Dr Fouchier and Dr Kawaoka is “an important tool for global surveillance efforts”. The organisation also worries that limiting access to relevant findings would be difficult to square with its recently updated pandemic influenza preparedness framework. This agreement, which stipulates that countries which provide virus samples should also receive the benefits of research, was preceded by four years of rancorous debate. If anything can be said for certain, then, it is that the gulf between those in favour of tighter controls and those against will be hard to bridge in a mere two months.
Excerpt, Flu research and public safety: Influenza and its complications, Economist, Jan. 28, at 77