Friday, February 17, 2012

When should we put limits on scientific research?

The scientific community is divided about what should be done about the report last month that flu researchers in the Netherlands and Wisconsin had created a version of the H5N1 virus that highly lethal and easily transmissible. The scientists involved have agreed to suspend their research for 60 days to give the international community time to discuss the ramifications of their work. Both Nature and Science Magazine have published a letter from the principal investigators of the two laboratories who were working on the modified virus on January 20th  discussing the positive health benefits that are likely to derive from their work and also acknowledging the fears and public debate prompted by their announcement.

Meanwhile, a closed-door meeting to discuss the controversial bird flu research has recently been held at the World Health Organization (WHO) to discuss the health and security risks posed by this type of research. Critics of the research worry that the newly created viruses might escape or be used as a bio weapon and potentially kill large numbers of people. Supporters of the research claim that the dangers of the engineered virus causing a pandemic are exaggerated due to the extreme safety measures being used in the labs, and that this type of research is essential to see how the bird flu circulating out in the wild might someday mutate and cause a pandemic.

The WHO meeting includes scientists whose labs are involved in the controversial research, other flu virologists, government officials, editors from science journals who wish to publish the results of the research, and one expert on research ethics. The WHO plans to release the results of the meeting after it has concluded.

For more information, see

Greenfield-Boyce, Nell. "Questions About Bird Flu Research Swirl Around Private WHO Meeting. January 17, 2012. National Public Radio.

Grady, Denise. "Scientists to Pause Research on Deadly Strain of Bird Flu" January 20, 2012. New York Times.

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