Dec. 27, 2011 at 5:07 PM ET
One of the predictable consequences of science’s rapidly growing knowledge of genetics is that the knowledge can be put to use to kill, harm or terrorize. Controlling dangerous knowledge is not easy and rarely foolproof—just look at the history of successful spying to get the secrets to make nuclear weapons or crack secret codes. The ability to make a new nasty class of biological weapons that could be used against us raises two important questions — should scientists try to make dangerous microbes and, if they do, who should they tell about their work?
Recently, scientists working for the U.S. government made a deadly flu virus, H5N1, even more contagious by making it airborne. In its natural form, H5N1 kills more than half the people it infects, but almost never spreads from person to person. The new modified strain changes that. Last week, there was a kerfuffle when government advisers asked the details be kept secret and not published in scientific journals to keep the information from falling into the wrong hands.
The scientists who tweaked the H5N1 virus say their work was necessary because they had to see if it was possible for the virus to mutate – and if it was, so that countries could take more dramatic steps to eradicate it, reported the New York Times.
But others say it should never have been created in the first place, it’s too dangerous and could get out of the lab and into the population.
So should scientists even be studying or making nasty microbial critters? The answer is yes. The only way to anticipate and respond to changes in nature that convert a relatively harmless strain of flu to a pandemic killer or to figure out ways to deal with horrors like flesh eating bacteria is to create and study them.
The second question becomes the key one—who should have access to this knowledge?
We need to do all we can to keep dangerous information out of the hands of both the bad and the irresponsible guys. This means not publishing the full formula for lethal microbes. It also means keeping an eye on where biological samples are shipped, who is invited to study at key laboratories and teaching ethical responsibility over and over again to budding scientists. It also means issuing government guidelines that journals, publishers, website managers and meeting organizers can follow to restrict what is made public that is obviously dangerous.
Some will sneer and say censorship has absolutely no place in science. But given the ways in which patents and trade secrets shape who has access to findings and data, that view is simply naïve. Others will say once the government starts dictating who can know what, the slope gets very slippery. But, the government should not make the rules — scientists, in consultation with other experts, should.
Some say no restrictions will work—information always gets out in the end. But we don't have to make the end easy to reach. The dangerous uses of genetic knowledge should be kept as restricted as we can make them.
Art Caplan, Ph.D., is the director for the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @ArthurCaplan.
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