Two scientific teams working separately have manipulated a "bird flu" strain of the influenza virus in such a way that they may have created the next deadly human plague.
One of those teams is in the Netherlands. The other is led by a virologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's veterinary school, whose laboratory is just 250 miles east of the Twin Cities.
This groundbreaking but frightening work has generated an escalating international debate over whether to publish the research in full.
While this is certainly a dilemma -- would publication provide a blueprint to bioterrorists? -- the controversy over alleged censorship has overshadowed other critical issues the research raises.
Questions that also need a high-profile airing: Should scientists create pathogens that could sicken or kill millions if released accidentally or deliberately? If so, what laboratory safeguards are adequate?
And, given the bird flu's ability to morph into a bug both lethal and easily spread in humans, is the world prepared for a potential pandemic? This virus is deadly in birds and sweeps through flocks, but rarely infects humans.
People who do contract it, however, often die. At least 565 people have contracted "bird flu" since 2004; about 59 percent of them have died.
Former journalist Laurie Garrett, now a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, deserves credit for pointing out that the bird flu debate so far has focused on the "wrong question.''
Her article, "The Bioterrorist Next Door,'' published Dec. 15 by the journal Foreign Policy, delves into the alarming implications of bird flu research.
"If this could be done, all kinds of other things can be done,'' Garrett said in an interview this week, noting that researchers elsewhere have already built the polio virus from written information and accidentally heightened the lethality of rodent smallpox.
The bird flu publication controversy, Garrett said, should serve as a warning as to what we need to do to scrutinize public health experiments and strengthen security around them.
Garrett astutely asks whether the labs in which the bird flu research was done should be more secure, and whether the proliferation of research facilities in the wake of 9/11 has heightened the risk of a rogue scientist engineering a dangerous superbug.
The Wisconsin bird flu researcher, Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, has declined requests for comment. The Netherlands' Dr. Ron Fouchier told the New York Times that he's skeptical that redacting his research will prevent bioterrorist access to it.
Last month, a U.S. government advisory panel that includes Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm announced that it is recommending that key details be withheld.
The panel's advisory isn't binding, but it has raised cries of censorship. Given that Fouchier himself dubbed the virus "one of the most dangerous viruses you can make" at a 2011 conference, the panel understandably erred on the side of caution.
But the lack of a detailed explanation for its risk analysis has created valid slippery-slope concerns.
Research in many disciplines -- from agriculture to pharmaceuticals -- could yield information that could be used for harm. What's next? Where are the lines drawn?
Much of the bird flu information is likely already out there because of how scientists rapidly exchange information as they work. But the real threat likely isn't a mad scientist; it's nature. The conditions by which the bird flu mutated into a dangerous human pathogen exist outside the laboratory.
Influenza vaccine manufacturing processes desperately need modernizing. Scientific research -- which relies heavily on government funding -- is a tempting target in an era of austerity.
The bird flu censorship debate, while far too narrowly focused, is nonetheless a timely reminder of how badly we need to stay on guard against a pathogen too often dismissed as the flu bug.