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The Fear of the Known

Publishing the genetic sequence of a transmissible influenza virus might be scary, but harder decisions are yet to come

Robert L. Dorit

The Shape of Things to Come

The Kawaoka paper has now been published, and the Fouchier paper cannot be far behind. This is the proper outcome. These findings are dispatches from deep within enemy territory. The information they provide enhances our understanding of a fearsome rival and provides new targets for drug and vaccine development, as well as enhancing our monitoring capabilities. This controversy, in the end, is not really about the risk of disseminating these scientific findings. What this episode has done instead is uncover deficiencies in our ability to classify, monitor and regulate so-called dual-use research—legitimate studies whose results could also threaten public health and security. And this problem will only grow more acute. As our ability to manipulate and customize life forms using experimental evolution, brute-force screening or synthetic biology improves, we will be facing more—and more complicated—dilemmas about what research can and should be done. I cannot easily predict what form this monitoring will take, although I suspect it will be a combination of self-policing by scientists and more rigorous scrutiny of research proposals by granting panels and biosafety committees. But for now, the genie is out of the bottle, and any solution predicated on shoehorning him back in will inevitably fail.


  • Barry, John M. 2004. The Great Influenza. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Crosby, Alfred W. 1989. America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press
  • Imai, M., et al. Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets. Nature online advance publication May 2, 2012

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