The online publication of a controversial article outlining potentially damaging data about the influenza virus finally went ahead recently, after a significant delay. Nature, after careful deliberation, published the paper much to the dismay of several official bodies, after the case was brought to a hearing in April by the US Senate. With scientific research being increasingly hindered by outside influences, is it time to make an absolute decision over what exactly can be published once and for all? Or would this be detrimental to scientific advances?
The paper, containing methodology and data covering artificial generation of a strain of H5N1 avian flu, that has the ability to transmit between mammals, was deemed initially unsuitable for publication unless highly censored by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) last November. However, such recommendation was only advisory; Nature still went ahead with the publication in full, entitled “Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets.”
Nature, a highly influential journal, stated after that “A paper that omits key results or methods disables subsequent research and peer review” and as such, went ahead and published the paper as intended, with no censorship. The paper itself justifies the research in the abstract, by explaining that now the ability to create and recognise this transmissible strain has been exercised in full, possible pandemics can be dealt with as time effectively as possible.
Issues involved were whether those who repeat the investigation will be entirely safe in their attempts, and if there is a possibility of it escaping a lab and infecting the public. The US Senate voiced its concerns over the extent to which the research could be used to aid bioterrorism should it get into the wrong hands. Both concerns are justified, but are the best solutions simply to keep such information under wraps?
The World Health Organisation has been encouraged to release guidelines about international standards for biosafety in laboratories, which hopefully will minimise the risk of laboratory based strains becoming dangerous, although no measures as of yet have been suggested to counter possible bioterrorist situations.
The same sort of dilemma came alongside stem cell research when it started to gain popularity. Eventual bans were placed in some countries such as Germany and Finland over embryonic stem cell use, despite results having long term potential to make a huge difference in medicine. Although the issues with stem cell research were ethical as opposed to safety-related, both situations highlight how the government can take control of scientific activities and even halt them altogether.
Legislation is made on a case by case basis, but is it time a more universal set of laws were put into place to protect both the ability to advance in science and the general public? Or is our scientific understanding expanding at such a rate that we can no longer predict what scenarios may arise in the future? At this point, research and its consequences are varied as different scientific discoveries spark different dilemmas, so perhaps a law that fits all is unrealistic. However, with clashes between law and science increasing in frequency, it seems that it may only be a matter of time before something has got to give.