One of the most pressing -- and downright frightening -- public-policy questions of our time received a healthy but under-the-radar airing this week at an elite scientific gathering in New York City.
At issue: Should researchers manipulate the influenza virus in ways that yield valuable knowledge but potentially enhance its lethality? If the answer is yes, then what safeguards are needed to prevent the pathogen's accidental or purposeful release -- a situation that could cause a deadly pandemic?
The meeting, which brought the world's top flu researchers together, unfortunately didn't settle these troubling questions. Nor did it garner enough news coverage so that the public understands the debate's stakes. And that's why it made sense for a top American health official to err on the side of caution this week when it came to lifting a research moratorium.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, strongly urged leading scientists to continue a voluntary seven-month moratorium on research enhancing influenza's transmissibility until there's widespread consensus on how to do it securely.
"The flu scientific community can no longer be the only player in the discussion about this research. You will unquestionably lose the battle for public support for your research if you ignore this issue,'' said Fauci, who was quoted in an Aug. 2 story in the Independent, a Great Britain-based newspaper.
Fauci's words have clout. His agency is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the world's leading funder of medical research.
The moratorium grew out of a controversy that erupted late last year when it came to light that two scientific teams -- one in the Netherlands, another at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- had altered the flu virus in ways that made it more contagious. Plans to publish the research triggered fears that this could provide a blueprint for bioterrorists. Or, lead to the pathogen's accidental release if less qualified or less secure laboratories -- such as those in developing countries -- decided to pursue this work.
A U.S. government advisory panel that includes Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm recommended that key details be withheld from publication, triggering charges of censorship. The panel later reversed its position, though some members, like Osterholm, continued to oppose unrestricted publication. Both teams' work has been published in full in scientific journals.
It's become clear during the moratorium that the broader scientific community remains deeply divided over the value of this research. Unfortunately, the debate mirrors the polarized politics of today. Some of the loudest voices totally oppose it. Others go to the opposite extreme, decrying any safeguards as chokeholds on academic freedom.
What's needed are solutions in the middle, as Osterholm has advocated. The research should be done. To prevent pandemics, scientists need to better understand what genetic changes make the virus more dangerous and how they occur.
But the research also must be done responsibly, and that's a challenge when the technological advances have broadened the ranks of scientists able to do this kind of work. Consensus and detailed guidelines are needed to heighten security precautions and ensure that information is shared safely, with an emphasis on preventing the accidental release of a manipulated pathogen.
Agreement needs to be reached soon so that the moratorium can be lifted and this critical research can be resumed with confidence.
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