The Day the Science Died

This afternoon, a coalition of influenza virologists released a statement saying that they are voluntarily suspending research on H5N1 “bird flu” for 60 days. This was in response to the Category 5 hype storm that has accompanied the publication of two papers about this virus. My previous post on this topic (and links therein) provides a quick review for those who haven’t been following this story.

I’m of two minds about the new moratorium. As a scientist, I think it’s moronic. H5N1 flu is biologically interesting, and could become a major public health concern if it ever manages to sustain human-to-human transmission. Though its lethality has probably been vastly overstated, there’s no doubt that it is capable of killing at least some people, under some circumstances. The demonstration that it’s possible for H5N1 to adapt to a mammalian host, even one that diverged from the primate lineage many millions of years ago, shows that we need to step up H5N1 research, not halt it.

However, the biodefense industry’s recent push to whip up fear has completely distorted the public’s perception of this issue. Millions of nonscientists are now convinced that the recent virus transmission work was dangerous, perhaps even foolhardy, and that terrorist groups could easily take advantage of the new findings to kill millions. None of that is even remotely true. Unfortunately, people who are in a panic aren’t capable of rationally evaluating the nuances, so the scientists who’ve been trying to defend ongoing H5N1 work are at a disadvantage. Saying they’ll suspend that work is the only reasonable public relations strategy at this point.

Around the same time the moratorium was announced, a partially overlapping group of virologists sent an open letter to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), giving that board a thump on the head. It was the NSABB that started this whole circus, by calling for the new H5N1 publications to be partially censored. In the open letter, the virologists argue that this censorship is unjustifiably hindering scientific progress. They were apparently too polite to say that deliberately omitting data from a publication in response to a nebulous, entirely theoretical “security risk” is antithetical to the whole scientific enterprise, so I’ll do it for them.

The moratorium should help bolster public confidence in the scientists’ ability to address this issue themselves, while the letter to the NSABB lays the groundwork for a productive debate based on reason rather than fear. Hopefully, in a couple of months everyone will be able to calm down and get back to work.