Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Censoring Science

Crof’s H5N1 blog is the place to watch for coverage of this week’s controversy over censorship of scientific findings.  A few words here about the controversy and the rush to censor science.

As Martin Enserink reports at Science Insider:

Two groups of scientists who carried out highly controversial studies with the avian influenza virus H5N1 have reluctantly agreed to strike certain details from manuscripts describing their work after having been asked to do so by a U.S. biosecurity council. The as-yet unpublished papers, which are under review at Nature and Science, will be changed to minimize the risks that they could be misused by would-be bioterrorists.

The “biosecurity council” in question is the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, an arm of the NIH’s Office of Science Policy.   It has recommended censorship of research on genetic alterations of avian (H5N1) flu that might make the virus easily transmissible between humans and pathogenic as well — ingredients for a potentially serious human outbreak.

I attach little public health importance to the experimental work, carried out by Fouchier in the Netherlands and Kawaoka in the U.S.  Flu’s behavior in human populations has been notoriously difficult to predict, even with relatively advanced molecular information about viral strains.  Flu forecasters repeatedly predict bad outbreaks and even (as in 2009) devastating pandemics — which fail to materialize.

Even when it comes to the most studied flu outbreak of all, the 1918 pandemic, opinions still differ on why so many millions of people died.

This week, what concerns me is the biosecurity industry.  It seems more than ever eager to terrify people.   The Fouchier and Kawaoka experiments themselves are interesting but hardly recipes for disaster.   And yet, some voices say the research shouldn’t have been carried out in the first place.  Surprisingly, they include the respected D.A. Henderson, here much mistaken.  He editorializes this week with two coauthors for the online publication Biosecurity and Bioterrorism.

It’s not opposition to science — it’s just the biosecurity “experts” making a living.

The move to suppress publication of research results because scientific findings might tip off some chimerical evildoers is ridiculous.  Fouchier, Kawaoka, and their teams were obviously trying to contribute to the search for ways to make people safer.   That’s what most people want science to do.  Instead of urging caution, the many scientists on the NSABB should be standing up for the wide dissemination of scientific findings — not for suppressing them.  Made-up concerns over “bioterrorism” should not trump public access to scientific research.

And the NSABB scientists shouldn’t be cowed by the self-professed biosecurity “experts” at the Center for Biosecurity.

The sole raison-d’etre of the “biosecurity” business is to keep itself in business — by keeping people terrified.   It does that by continually invoking impossible scenarios that are supposed to (a) frighten the public and (b) cause the public to buy products that we don’t need or give up rights that we do need.

After being scared into thinking the 2009 H1N1 outbreak was going to be a reprise of the 1918 flu calamity and finding that it was exceptionally mild instead, surely the public is not going to be taken in by the biosecurity industry much longer.

It’s anybody’s guess as to whether the new findings about H5N1 are at all meaningful in (human) public health terms.  Which is what happens with science.  That’s why the point of suppressing the findings isn’t to make anyone safer – – it’s just to keep the biosecurity experts in business.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 21st, 2011 at 8:33 pm and is filed under biosecurity, epidemics, flu, Outbreaks, public health, science. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Censoring Science”

Brandon Keim says:

I agree that would-be bioterrorists are an overstated threat — but accidental release is a much-understated threat. The list of accidental exposures & infections at BSL-3 and even BSL-4 facilities is very long, and so far these strains are being handled at BSL-3 — which makes a mockery of the entire system. If multiple labs end up working on these extra-contagious H5N1 strains, you can bet that within a few years, some lab worker is going to go home carrying it.

    Philip Alcabes says:

    Good point, Brandon, thanks. But does the possibility that a purposely mutated viral strain might be released from a lab amount to a greater threat than nature itself? That’s un-knowable, of course (and I recognize that you are not claiming to know the answer!). Your observation is a reminder that (a) no security system guarantees perfect safety from germs and (b) government agencies aren’t necessarily the most competent arbiters of how to make life safer.