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Georgetown Professor Applauds Decision Of Researchers To Temporarily Halt Research On H5N1

January 23, 2012

A Georgetown University Medical Center professor says the voluntary action taken by two research teams to temporarily halt work involving the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 is “laudable.”

In the researchers´ statement, published today by Science and Nature, the authors stated that they “recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks.” The statement comes in the wake of a debate following the U.S. government´s request that Science and Nature withhold scientific information related to the genetically modified H5N1 virus because of biosecurity concerns.

“This is a laudable decision to make sure that all voices are heard on such an important issue,” says John D. Kraemer, JD, MPH, assistant professor of health systems administration at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies. He is also affiliated with the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. Trained in both public health and the law, Kraemer conducts scholarship on public health law and ethics, with a particular focus on the ethical and legal limits of governmental action to address health concerns.

“The moratorium will provide an opportunity for institutions to assess the best way of overseeing dual use research – that which has both significant potential for public health benefits and a chance for harm,” he adds.

In 2011, two research teams — one from the United States and one from the Netherlands – announced that they had genetically modified the H5N1 avian influenza virus in such a way that it could possibly spread rapidly among humans. They estimated that half of those who would contract the engineered virus would die (the research was conducted in an animal model believed to represent human behavior of the virus). Their work, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was submitted independently to the journals Nature and Science for publication. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which advises the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), recommended that Science and Nature redact key information prior to publication out of concern that published details about the papers´ methodology and results could become a blueprint for bioterrorism.

On January 19, Kraemer and his colleague, Lawrence O. Gostin, the Linda D. and Timothy J. O´Neill Professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center, published an invited opinion on the topic for Science´s “Policy Forum.” (“The Limits of Government Regulation of Science” 19 Jan 2012).

In it, Kraemer and Gostin said the U.S. government´s request that the journals Science and Nature withhold that scientific information does not violate the First Amendment. They advised, however, that a fair, transparent process undertaken by research organizations is preferable to governmental constraints on disseminating scientific information.

“The NSABB process seems to have worked well in this instance,” says Kraemer. “It raised legitimate security concerns while avoiding censorship of the scientific press. But there remains a need to strengthen precautions around this type of research before scientific censorship occurs.”

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