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Case Study: Recombinant DNA Technology and Biosafety

Dr. Fouchier, a scientist at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, used recombinant DNA technology to artificially introduce mutations in the H5N1 bird flu that made the disease easily transmissible from human to human. At present, the bird flu can only infect humans via direct contact with an animal host. However, there is a chance that the virus could mutate into a form that would allow human-to-human transmission, which could lead to a fatal pandemic. Thus, scientists, such as Dr. Fouchier, believe that it is important to study the genetics of H5N1 human-to-human transmission in order to be prepared to treat and prevent fatal outbreaks in the future.
However, following Dr. Fouchier’s presentation of his findings at a conference in September 2011, concern arose regarding the release of information on how to create deadly, transmissible viruses. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) originally asked specific scientific journals in December 2011 to remove details from the paper before publication. The NSABB cited a risk of bioterrorism when defending their decision. Ultimately, however, in March 2012, the NSABB reversed their decision. The chairman, Dr. Paul Keim, stated that the benefit of examining the pandemic potential of flu viruses outweighed the risks of misuse of the information published from such studies. Though the NSABB reversed their original request, the issue of creating deadly viruses remains controversial in the field of biosafety and biotechnology.

If you were the chair of the National Science Advisory Board, what would you decide about publishing Dr. Fouchier’s study?

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