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Censoring influenza research: gagging scientists could put lives at risk

By Ross Barnard

Tying the arms of our scientists behind their backs will put lives at stake and set a dangerous precedent.

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Researchers working on a pathogenic strain of avian flu (H5N1) have agreed to pause their work for 60 days so international experts can discuss the safest ways to proceed. But it’s important to ensure that this voluntary moratorium doesn’t provide a platform for censorship of the research which has already faced calls for suppression of data from a US government agency.

Censorship of certain aspects of the research was proposed in the United States by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), ostensibly in the interest of national security. The threat of such action led to urgent calls by scientists for globalization of the discussion. But arguments about the level of containment required for the work itself, and arguments about the suppression of publication have become confounded in the discussions of the research’s implications.

Wrong mutations?
It’s even been asserted that censorship won’t harm the health of our community because “limited benefit” will flow from this research – this is incorrect. Genetic changes made to the virus in this and earlier studies, which made changes based on those found in the 1918 “Spanish flu”, are based on naturally occurring mutations of the virus that have been implicated, by association (but not proven until recently), to cause severe illness in humans and animals.

It’s...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Ross Barnard is Biotechnology Program Director at the University of Queensland. This article was originally published at The Conversation.