H5N1 research benefits outweigh risks


This month has thrown academia and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) into an uproar. 

Two studies slated to be published in December contained details about the avian influenza (H5N1) virus and were censored after a recommendation by the NSABB, which found that the research information posed a potential safety risk.  The studies were conducted by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Toyko and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. The two conducted the experiments using ferrets, which mimic disease transmission between humans.

D.A. Henderson, a researcher who played a large part in eradicating smallpox in the ’70s and preparing against anthrax in 2011, said to the Chronicle of Higher Education that “compared to plague or to anthrax, this (disease) has a potential for disaster that dwarfs all others.”

The NSABB doesn’t seem concerned about the near-60 percent death rate of humans infected with avian flu, but rather the research’s potential aid to bioterrorism. Some scientists believe that if placed in the wrong hands, terrorists could use the information to start a pandemic.

Kawaoka and Fouchier used different methods to mutate and transmit the disease in the ferrets, and both were effective. Kawaoka believes the concerns are minimal compared to the natural risks that the disease poses. He said to sciencemag.org that the “H5N1 mutations that confer transmissibly in mammals may emerge in nature,” and calls it “irresponsible” not to study the disease.

Many researchers think silencing the findings is ridiculous. If another nation wanted to create a bioterrorism threat using H5N1, it is likely that there are researchers working toward this already. According to Kawaoka, enough information already exists for a skilled researcher to isolate and reproduce the strain, even without full disclosure of the two research papers.

According to the Chronicle, a recent study in rural Thailand indicated that 9.1 percent of villagers studied possessed antibodies against one of two H5N1 strains.  Continued research could include isolating the antibodies to produce a vaccine. Since researchers like Kawaoka believe that the disease could mutate, fast action would be necessary to prevent its spread.

Though the disease could pose a serious health threat in the wrong hands, the issue is more about the safety of the researchers. The information must go only to those who are skilled enough to be certain that the disease does not spread beyond the walls of the research lab, which could potentially pose a domestic health threat.

While many scientists argue that the studies should never have been done in the first place, the studies have already been conducted and there is no use wasting time regretting the issue. The scientific community should move forward with the information they have.