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Contagious flu: sign of outbreak, or aversion?

Aaron Sprinkles, Viewpoints editor

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A few months ago, I wrote an article about the controversy in academia surrounding the Black Death and the pathogen thought to be responsible. As one of the most catastrophic biological disasters in the history of our species, scholars have struggled for years to piece together an accurate picture of the pandemic for the benefit of our understanding. While this type of historical research into human pathogens is fruitful and carries little to no risk, another methodology is generating a degree of alarm both on the internet and in sectors of the scientific community.
The H5N1 avian flu, according to the World Health Organization, is one of the deadlier pathogens humans can contract, with an estimated fatality rate of around 50 percent; the upside (if there is one) being that heretofore only direct contract with infected poultry has successfully spread the disease to humans. In an attempt to explore the possibility that avian flu could mutate and spread readily amongst mammals, researchers made the decision to actively cultivate a strain capable of doing just that. They succeeded in mutating a form of avian flu that transmitted itself between ferrets relatively easily and documented the process of eliciting the desired genetic changes.
Presumably this kind of research, which seems incredibly dangerous to us non-scientists, could lead to the development of a preemptive vaccine. More importantly perhaps, this technique could take us from a reactionary to an aggressive position in combating diseases of this magnitude. Proactive developmental research on pathogens certainly isn’t new, but the manipulation of avian flu could be a new high in terms of risk. Regardless, we as a species have more to lose now than ever before, and while the risks inherent to actively cultivating a super-virus are great, a pandemic similar to the outbreak of Spanish flu in 1911 could topple the highly specialized technological society we’ve build up around us.
On the recommendation of the National Institute of Health, the research documenting the creation of the virus was delayed from publication in the scientific journal Nature and parts were redacted in the interest of security. As an example of “dual-purpose” research, technical details of the project would obviously have potential military value in addition to the more altruistic preventative applications of the data. The conflict here is obvious, as biological warfare could become the weapon of choice for rogue states provided the foundational research is done by legitimate academics.
While researchers are cognizant that their efforts can potentially be used for harm, dissemination of vital information is necessary for a consensus to develop from scientific debate. Almost no research goes uncontested to some degree, and for good reason, as the scientific model relies on responsible skepticism to hone theories into their best possible form. While it is obviously preferable that this activity go on unimpeded, it seems that new formal channels for information sharing might be necessary outside the journal publishing format. This, however, could vivisect scientific discourse into discrete channels and threaten the integrity of the foundation upon which our modern society has been built – the scientific method. This dilemma will ultimately be resolved in the details, and a panel was convened to discuss the significance of the findings and the wider security issues at stake.

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Contagious flu: sign of outbreak, or aversion?