21 Dec, 11 | by Iain Brassington
A story that has had a little airtime on the news over the last 24 hours or so concerns requests by US officials that details of research into a bird flu variant be held back from publication on the grounds that it might be of use to terrorists:
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that the “general conclusions” be published but that final manuscripts not include details that “could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm”.
The BBC’s health news blog reports that
Professor John Oxford from Barts and the London School of Medicine [says], “They should definitely publish. The biggest risk with bird flu is from the virus itself. We should forget about bio terrorism and concentrate on Mother Nature.” [He and Prof Wendy Barclay from Imperial College London] agree that the influenza virus would make a pretty poor bioterrorist weapon, unless your aim was to spread the infection across the world. Influenza has no respect for borders, so introducing a virus in one country would inevitably spread it globally.
But Michael Parker, Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Ethox Centre at the University of Oxford, disagrees. ”The position that everything should be published is not tenable. There must be some scientific information which contains an immediate threat to public safety if it fell into the wrong hands.”
Parker’s worries reflect those articulated by Tom Douglas and Julian Savulescu in the JME a little while ago; they argued that synthetic biology raises significant new ethical problems, not least because of the potential for “dual use”.
I have to admit that I have yet to be convinced by the biosecurity worries. more…