What takes precedence - medical understanding of a flu virus that theoretically could one day mutate and prove deadly to much of the world's population, or the importance of keeping such knowledge out of the hands of people who could use it to harm others?
It might seem like an academic question but it assumed significance recently because scientists from the Netherlands and the US have engineered a version of the H5N1 bird flu virus that can be transmitted atmospherically.
Until now, the virus only passes on to humans via direct physical contact with infected birds - particularly by eating poultry such as chickens, ducks and geese - which has allowed public health officials to keep outbreaks under control.
Although the number of people who have fallen sick and died has been relatively small, scientists have long been concerned about the much more serious consequences if the H5N1 virus ever mutated into an airborne form. So in an attempt to work out how that might happen, and to formulate a scientific and medical response, researchers mutated the new strain of the bug in the laboratory with the intention of publishing their results so that others could study it too.
But their work has divided the scientific community and alarmed global security agencies concerned about bioterrorism. The fear is that if the new variant of H5N1 got out of the laboratory, or the knowledge of how it was engineered was obtained by bio-terrorists bent on killing a great many people, the results could be devastating.
Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, is worried because where humans are concerned H5N1 is especially dangerous, with a high lethality rate. Should an airborne variant, easily transmitted around the world from one person to another in this age of mass air travel, ever emerge into the open it could provoke a full blown pandemic, with devastating results.
"There's no way of saying how many humans would die," says Garrett. "The Spanish flu of 1918 killed 100 million human beings with a two per cent kill rate. So jump to the age of globalisation, and imagine a 50 per cent kill rate."
Others believe that the benefits of further understanding such bugs far outweigh any imagined threats and that much of the rhetoric is alarmist and overblown. They insist that in order to work out how to prevent a virus from spreading and to treat its effects, the medical community has to know more about how it works. And it is vital for the knowledge to be widely shared through scientific journals.
Earlier this month, after a tense stand-off between the camps, the research projects won agreement from bio-terrorism officials to let them publish their work. But should the general public be concerned? This film by Andrew Fowler, Dee Porter, Bronwen Reed and ABC looks at the risks.
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