Bird flu research to be published
Apparently a panel of public health officials is in a better position to make a risk assessment about avian influenza than the New York Times editorial board. For those of you following this story (and that should be everyone in BIO230!), research results were announced late last year detailing how H5N1 avian influenza, the so-called bird flu, can be engineered to increase its virulence in humans. Public alarm bells were immediately raised over this announcement, citing concern over the possibility that these highly virulent pathogens could conceivably be used in a bioterrorism event. With the public announcement of the research results, calls were raised to either suppress the results completely, or to identify a mechanism that they could be distributed through channels to appropriate individuals in the research community. Regardless, the results themselves were held from publication until the situation could be examined more thoroughly.
I made the argument last month here after the NYT editorial linked above hit the media, that although there is surely a risk due to bioterrorism using an agent such as this, the danger of an unknown viral agent of natural origin should be far more worrisome to us. Consequently, we put ourselves at unnecessary risk as a society by NOT studying what makes viruses that we are familiar with so incredibly dangerous. An international panel of public health officials met this week at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, and came to a similar conclusion. The panel released a statement, which in part said that
any theoretical risk of the virus’s being used by terrorists was far outweighed by the “real and present danger” of similar flu viruses in the wild, and by the need to study them and freely share information that could help identify the exact changes that might signal that a virus is developing the ability to cause a pandemic
The original research was going to be published regardless, although once the initial story broke late last year, what was going to be published was a redacted version of the research in the prestigious journals Science and Nature. The determination of the international panel is that the research should eventually be published in full, however it will not happen immediately. The extension of the publication moratorium however is not because of the perceived dangerous nature of the research, but instead is intended to give health officials the opportunity to inform the public about the research’s importance.
Which brings me to another tangential discussion about the public, which is something I have ranted on before on the BIO230 blog. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson is awesome, and so does the science blog io9.com, which you may notice that I link to frequently. That last io9.com story reported on another New York Times piece, which posed the question “If I were President” to a number of individuals across society in America. Neil Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, an astrophysicist, and one of the best science communicators of our generation. If you get the chance to catch him on the Colbert Report, he is remarkably passionate about all aspects of science.
Tyson’s response to the question of what he would do if President was to say that he didn’t want to be President, but instead “to enlighten the electorate so they might choose the right leaders in the first place.” He is passionate about education, and making sure that we the people have the correct tools to be able to make an informed decision about bird flu or any other scientific issue that might impact our lives. His expectation and my expectation is not to generate a nation of astrophysicists, or microbiologists, but to have an electorate that is not intimidated by science, and to think about issues logically and with reason.
Posted on February 19, 2012, in Danger danger danger!, Death from the skies and tagged Avian influenza, Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York Times, World Health Organization. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.