H5N1 Flu papers

As you’ve probably heard, there are two of them out there drawing a great deal of controversy because they purport to show how to molecularly engineer this deadly flu virus to be more transmissible. Recall, that the global threat from a given flu virus is a function of both mortality rate and transmissibility rate

Now, the US Biosecurity Panel is calling for a second “Asilomar” to consider how to handle such manuscripts in the future, with a publishing moratorium of “perhaps three months”. ScienceInsider has the story here.

As a journal editor, I have a huge stake in how this is handled. On the one hand, open science, is essential to scientific progress. We need to have sufficient information in the manuscript for independent replication of the results, particularly if they are consequential. On the other hand, we don’t want to give the recipe for global catastrophe to an individual (or group) with ill intent.

Ideas that are out there right now converge around the lines of publishing results and holding methods for those parties who are properly vetted (perhaps by the CDC or WHO). But I’m not sure that would work, because the methods of molecular biology are really well-known (see biohackers), and in this case, the results alone, might provide the essential “launch” key.