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Four Options For Resolving Bird Flu Research Debate

In this Scientific American opinion piece, author and former staff writer at Scientific American John Horgan examines “a bitter debate” among scientists over the publication of controversial H5N1 research, writing, “Research involving the bird-flu virus H5N1 poses an especially knotty dilemma, in which scientists’ commitment to openness — and to reducing humanity’s vulnerability to potential health threats — collides with broader security concerns.” Horgan provides some statistics on H5N1 infection, recounts a brief history of the research in question, and suggests four options to resolve the dilemma.

He writes, “Disease researchers could continue experimenting and publishing their results without any restrictions”; “Researchers could only do work deemed by authorities to offer much greater benefits than risks, and publications would not disclose details that could be exploited by terrorists or others who might carry out biological attacks”; “The research could continue but only under secret, classified conditions in military facilities”; or a ban on all research aimed at making pathogens deadlier can be implemented. He concludes, “[P]rograms that are supposed to protect us from diseases may end up hurting us. Nature already does all-too-good a job of inventing new microbes to sicken and kill us. Do we really want to bring more into the world?” (2/6).