Scientists Will Halt Research on Avian Flu That Could Kill Half the World's Humans—for Two Months

The scientists who created an airborne and extremely contagious strain of bird flu say they are temporarily halting their research for 60 days. Oh good! Looks like we don't have to be cripplingly terrified until April.

A two-month hiatus is perhaps not all that comforting, but it does buy time for scientists around the world to seek the best way to deal with some of the most dangerous research on earth. Whether the research should continue is one issue, another is whether the work should be published in a scientific journal where anyone could read it.

In November at an influenza conference in Malta, virologist Ron Fouchier announced that he had created "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make." In December, U.S. health officials urged Foucher and another group at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who performed similar research not to publish their recipe for the super deadly avian flu strain, which could kill half the world's humans.

Since then there's been an outcry among scientists who say it's important not to censor research. Their arguments against censorship make a lot of sense: censorship of any kind is a dangerous precedent, lots of dangerous information is published all the time, and who would enforce the security situation? But some government officials fear that bioterrorists or a laboratory accident could release the engineered germs into the air or the wrong hands. So in a letter published on the journal Nature's website, the virologists have agreed to pause their work, and want to reassure the public that their research is as safe as apocalypse-style virus research can be:

Despite the positive public-health benefits these studies sought to provide, a perceived fear that the ferret-transmissible H5 HA viruses may escape from the laboratories has generated intense public debate in the media on the benefits and potential harm of this type of research. We would like to assure the public that these experiments have been conducted with appropriate regulatory oversight in secure containment facilities by highly trained and responsible personnel to minimize any risk of accidental release. Whether the ferret-adapted influenza viruses have the ability to transmit from human to human cannot be tested.

I don't expect a nice neat agreement among the international science community in two months. But I hope we can find a place that's not censorship, but also not releasing some of the most dangerous data known to man to bad guys.

[Nature]