Stopping Bioterrorism Through Censorship

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Molotov cocktails. Napalm. Nuclear bombs. Dirty bombs. Smallpox. All dangerous. All deadly in the wrong hands. All fairly widely understood in the scientific community, so much so that the control point around them isn’t related to information. It’s related to supplies. While it’s easy to get a rag, a broken bottle, some gasoline, and a match, it gets progressively harder to get napalm, plutonium, or Variola major. Now, an interesting ethical dilemma is facing two journals as the US government — whose National Institutes of Health funded the research in question — is asking Nature and Science to not publish full genetic sequences involved in making the H5N1 bird flu virus transmissible by coughing or sneezing. It turns out bird flu only needs a few nudges to become aerosolized. The original impetus behind the research was to find ways to develop drugs and vaccines against bird flu by understanding its mutation pathways. Unfortunately, researchers found it took just five mutations in two genes to create a strain of H5N1 that could get airborne and infect and potentially kill millions. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, overseen by the NIH, has asked Science and Nature to keep certain details out of reports that they intend to publish on the research. When I first read about this, the case of United States v. Progressive came to mind. Not by name, of course. That required a trip to the Google. But I remembered the general parameters from when I was a kid. There are some clear parallels. In United States v. Progressive, the issue was publication of plans for a hydrogen bomb. The government sought prior restraint on the publication, and a Wisconsin federal district judge ruled in favor of the governme... ... middle of paper ... ... the data are safe now that their existence is known isn’t practical. The data will get out. If the information is in the hands of the good guys first, our chances seem better. This is a thorny ethical issue, but not as thorny as many. There is precedent here with United States v. Progressive. One country or two journals exercising restraint won’t be enough. And in a communications environment much different than the one that existed in 1979, when United States v. Progressive was decided, keeping secrets whose existence has been broadcast and which reside on digital media is nearly impossible. One hack, one thumb drive, and they’re out. Instead, the best approach seems to be to lock down the raw materials needed to turn that knowledge into power. That, at least, has a track record of working while allowing science to advance. Works Cited the scholarly kitchen
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