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"Doomsday Flu" Debate Continues
Posted In: Technology Articles  12/20/11
By: Chris Capps

H5N1_1.jpg
After a panel of advisers recommended that key elements of a paper on the new bird flu strain are redacted and controlled, scientists are pushing back stating that the research is in the name of vaccine production and must reach viable researchers who are attempting to cure the illness before it becomes a massive problem.  But as the power struggle continues, a key question is coming out - and it's clear why this controversy is a bit more complicated than it looks at first.

The controversy, which hinges on the fact that the likelihood of this virus arising naturally is higher than originally thought, is countered by the idea that the information necessary to give researchers a head start on the disease is also dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands.

So on the one hand we have the scientists who want to do the research, and want to find a legitimate vaccine for the illness before an outbreak - either natural or man-made - occurs.  And on the other hand, there is a very tempting possibility that we will never encounter this particular strain of bird flu transmissible between humans unless it happens by some accident or terrorist act, and that by releasing the details on the illness scientists are unnecessarily endangering millions.  And the information has been described as a veritable Pandora's Box.  Once it is released into the hands of the public it will be impossible to once again put back the details of this controversial virus' genetic code.

As with so many modern issues and controversies we can look back on history to gain some level of perspective on the issue.  And in this case, as the illness has been compared to the splitting of the atom perhaps we can examine the history of nuclear secrets to get one potential idea on how this might unfold.

The NSABB has already stated that it lacks the power to censor scientists if they go against the wishes of the board.  And as some of the scientists have already stated their wish to go against the advise of the board, it seems the only alternative would be to either give the NSABB more power to censor what it deemed dangerous through legislation, or to draft a new organization entirely to answer that need.

In the early days of the Manhattan Project, in the war time patriotism secrecy was certainly an absolute necessity for the war effort.  And yet as the war ended, the secrets were eventually leaked out despite the prodigious efforts on the part of the Counterintelligence Corps.  Spies eventually were recruited from nuclear programs and gradually released highly guarded secrets.  Is this any reason to simply ignore secrets?  No, but it is a factor that was eventually taken into consideration by the military in regards to the project and subsequent programs.  And of course there is also the story of David Hahn who attempted to build a nuclear breeder reactor in his back yard with materials he acquired with the resources of a suburban teenager - and came disturbingly close to realizing his goal.  If only a few modifications to existing code is all that is necessary to create a doomsday virus, then it's clear why the need for a vaccine is so clear to the scientists who worked on it.

What decision will the scientific community come to?  This seems to be one of those situations where danger may lurk either way.


 

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