Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Nature as always provides an interesting article pertaining to bioterrorism and the responsibility of science to ensure that it is used responsibly. Among many of the issues raised in the article is censoring academic publications pertaining to methods that may be used for a terrorist attack. For example, Nature brings up:
"For instance, a researcher might choose to brief key government officials about a sensitive finding instead of publishing it in a widely distributed journal — a possibility raised in ongoing controversy over a paper that models a bioterrorist attack on the US milk supply. Publication of this study has been delayed after protest from the US government"

In many regards, I somewhat agree and disagree with the idea of restricting the publication of scientific papers regardless of if the restriction pertains to where or even if the paper could be published at all. In some respects, it will be about the security of the general public as it is certainly true that terrorists have used biological agents in the past such as anthrax. Caution pertaining to who can get access to scientific papers detailing methodology on making recombinant pathogens, or modelling potential bioterrorism attacks should probably be monitored.

At the same time, science itself relies on communication and interaction between scientists. Hampering the ability to post in journals may lower scientific understanding and ultimately make biological agents harder to fight. For example, the recent developments in making new influenza vaccines uses a modified eight (or six) plasmid system. This system allows for quick and efficient production of new influenza virus with different surface 'spikes'. The goal of this system originally was for the more rapid production of a vaccine against the emerging avian flu strain H5N1 (which can't be made by traditional methods). It's also unfortunately true that terrorists could potentially use a similar system to make a new virulent influenza strain as a weapon.

Ultimately, there needs to be a degree of responsibility from both scientists performing this work and from journals that allow it to be publicised. I just hope that Government legislation does not attempt to interfere too largely with the ability of scientists to publicise papers.