Flu Research Catch 22

January 4, 2012

Last week Dr. Ruth Faden, Director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, joined a panel of experts on the NPR’s nationally syndicated Diane Rehm Showto discuss the potential, unprecedented censorship of scientific research reports at the request of a federal government advisory board.


The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), overseen by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is concerned that a newly developed, highly contagious strain of the virus A(H5N1), which causes bird flu, could be weaponized by terrorists.  Doctors and scientists have been prominent in terrorist organizations, including the perpetrators of the 2007 car bombings in London; Ayman al-Zawahiri, formerly a top deputy to Osama bin Laden; and Mahmoud Zahar, the co-founder of Hamas, among many others.


The NSABB was established at the recommendation of the so-called Fink Committee, formed after the terrorist attacks of  2001. Dr. Faden served on the committee and contributed to the landmark “Fink Report”.


On the discussion panel with Dr. Faden were Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH; Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy; and Bruce Alberts editor-in-chief of Science, one of the journals asked to censor its publication, as well as the President’s science envoy to Indonesia.


Dr. Fauci explained that bird flu is highly lethal but not contagious among humans in its current form.  However, scientists fear that the virus will mutate and become transmissible from person to person, leading to a worldwide pandemic.  Scientists began the research currently under scrutiny with hopes of developing a vaccine before a pandemic becomes reality.


Fauci explained the desire to find a “balance between the scientific need to know so that we can help protect society, and then also not getting it into the hands of everyone and anyone who might have nefarious motives.”


Dr. Osterholm focused on the risk posed not only by terrorist-scientists making use of information in the reports but legitimate laboratories having a safety issue or accident. He agreed finding balance was key and asserted that “censorship is one of the original sins of research. It shouldn’t be censored, we don’t want to censor it – this is important information to get out.”  However, he went on to say that, “In the meantime, you can’t un-ring a bell. So what we don’t want to have happen is some of this information get out there in a way that we regret that it’s getting out there, and that’s what we’re trying to do –be cautious, careful but move as quickly as we can forward.”


While this may seem like an intractable dilemma between public health and security, Dr. Faden pointed out that the two sides are not so far apart. “In the end, we’re talking about the same thing,” she said, “reducing the probability that we’ll be facing a killer pandemic.”


Dr. Faden went on to propose an existing model for how to achieve the desired “balance” of competing concerns. “We manage risks all the time. There are other models where information has to be carefully made available to the right people, under the right circumstances. The problem for us in biology,” Faden continued, “is that this is such a new phenomenon, and it runs counter to they way in which we understand the value of information; science thrives, centrally, on the free-flow of information, on transparency, on openness.”


Faden suggested that the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC), established in 1974 to oversee scientific research manipulating recombinant DNA molecules, as a model of government oversight that scientists have felt is balanced and not prohibitive.  According to the Committee’s official NIH website, it has created “an environment in which science can advance in an informed, safe, and ethical manner.”


As for the immediate dilemma, Bruce Alberts asserted that Science “would like very much to support” the recommendations of the NSABB and hoped, along with other panelists, for the formation of an international committee to oversee the prevention of viral bioterrorism and protection of scientific discovery.  However, Alberts acknowledged that organizing international oversight could take some time, and there is an immediate need to get this latest research on A(H5N1) to scientists who need to know, particularly in Asia, to beat the flu before a deadly mutation.


Dr. Fauci agreed that we need to be able to counter what has historically been “the worst bioterrorist of all…nature.”

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