It seems that Dutch and American scientists have discovered a way to create a variant on the A(H5N1) virus that’s easy to transmit. That would be the bird flu virus, which in its natural form is lethal, but at least very difficult to transmit.
The National Science Board for Biosecurity has asked Science and Nature if they’d be so kind as to keep the details of this magic formula out of the public realm. They stress that they’re not trying to censor anyone, they’re just asking for a bit of cooperation, seeing as this bug could, you know, wipe out all of humanity:
Scientists and journal editors are generally adamant about protecting the free flow of ideas and information, and ready to fight anything that hints at censorship.
“I wouldn’t call this censorship,” [Editor of Science] Dr. Alberts said. “This is trying to avoid inappropriate censorship. It’s the scientific community trying to step out front and be responsible.”
He said there was legitimate cause for the concern about the researchers’ techniques falling into the wrong hands.
“This finding shows it’s much easier to evolve this virus to an extremely dangerous state where it can be transmitted in aerosols than anybody had recognized,” he said. Transmission by aerosols means the virus can be spread through the air via coughing or sneezing.
Ever since the tightening of security after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, scientists have worried that a scientific development would pit the need for safety against the need to share information. Now, it seems, that day has come.
“It’s a precedent-setting moment, and we need to be careful about the precedent we set,” Dr. Alberts said.
I’m against censorship, but I’d like to take this opportunity equally politely to agree with the National Science Board for Biosecurity and remind these journals that if they publish this information we’re all going to die, so it’s probably not a good idea to do it. In fact, I’d have preferred they not tell the entire freaking world that it’s super-easy to do in the first place.
Also, to the scientists in question: Please remember to wash your hands before you leave the lab and touch the buttons on the elevator. This is no time to get sloppy.