May 21, 2003 

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Bioterror and Biology (video)
March 04, 2003

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Interviewee: Ronald Atlas, President, American Society for Microbiology

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Produced by Joyce Gramza

Copyright ScienCentral, Inc. with additional footage from NBC News.

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After many months of debate, biology researchers announced that they won't publish information that could be misused by bio-terrorists.

But as this ScienCentral News video reports, the debate over what shouldn't be published goes on.

Biology's new roles

Biomedical researchers are accustomed to playing a role in saving lives, not endangering them. But since the anthrax attacks of September 2001, biologists have been grappling with the issue of whether some of their research findings could provide new tools of the trade for terrorists.

At the same time, bioscientists must take a more urgent role than ever in finding new vaccines, drugs and detection methods to defend against bioterrorism—progress that depends on the sharing of scientific information. The inherent conflict between these two roles has become the hot topic in biology, and a failure of the scientific community to resolve it could lead to broad government censorship.

"It is a fundamental duty of the government to protect its citizens from biological attack," says Gigi Kwik, a Fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health's Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. "The problem is, because this is such a complex field with many different sub-disciplines, it's very hard for the government, which has blunt instruments at its disposal, to really effect change," Kwik says.

So while it may be tempting to cast scientists' new plan to police themselves as a response to fears of government intervention, experts insist that the conflict is not between scientists and the government, but between biology's new roles.

"Scientists need to be involved, because they're the ones doing the work.They know more about what's going on in their labs and what kind of information they're going after," says Kwik. "So it really needs to be a concerted action between scientists and the government."

Concern and Confusion

Individual scientists, says Kwik, are most concerned about whether they should, or shouldn't, include their thoughts on whether their work might be misused by terrorists in their manuscripts.

Kwik has interviewed many scientists "who work in this so-called grey area," she says. "Their research does in my judgement lower the barriers towards bioweapons development, but there are clearly beneficent uses for their research as well. One of the concerns that was brought up by almost every scientist we talked to was, 'We really don't want to give information.We really want to be selective in what we say.' They're worried about expressing their own concerns about bioterrorism because it would be in a public forum and thereby giving information to terrorists."

Ron Atlas, President of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), which publishes 11 journals, says other authors are erring in the opposite direction.

"In part what we are seeing today is more authors, in order to get more attention for their work, will tell us that the research in fact could reveal dangerous things, so what we're finding is that as we review manuscripts, it's the authors themselves who are saying 'You really have to be careful of how people may misuse the information I'm giving in this paper'," Atlas says.

"That's a flag for us and we're wondering, why would you do that?" he says. "And we're finding some authors think you have to say that to get it published. That's not the case. Ethical, responsible publishing doesn't require us being alarmist, and it doesn't require us helping terrorists."

"It's a very fine line because you need information to prepare, and you need to know the reality of the situation in order to plan for things," says Kwik. "It's definitely a hard line, because right now we're at a point where we can imagine more dangers than we can prevent, and we need to get to the point where we have a robust biodefense so that we can anticipate dangers, prepare for them, and hopefully take it off the table."

For the foreseeable future, the dangers are very much on the table, forcing a major change in how biology and genetics researchers view their work.

Once Upon a Time

"Biology has been kind of a cuddly science. You know, it does good for us all and it's medicine or drugs," says Christopher Davis, Chief Scientist at Veridian, a contractor specializing in countering terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Davis, whose previous career in British intelligence included investigating former-Soviet Union bioweapons labs, was once a lonely voice warning of the dangers of bioterrorism.

"In my professional life, I've gone from being someone who most people thought was crazy to… well it's all pretty obvious, isn't it?" Davis says. "It wasn't, once upon a time."

"It's been thought, the physicists and the mathematicians have been the ones we've had to watch because they did, you know, ‘The Bomb,’" says Davis. "Today, the things that can be done [through biology] will require us… all scientists, a lot of them the very young people, the people at the bench doing lots of experiments… to think more about the issue. They can't just do experiments and say, well, it's science. That's no longer good enough."

"It's not just about publishing," Kwik says. "What it comes down to is all the facets of the scientific community need to look at their practices and their expectations for research and at how they can reduce societal risk without harming the free flow of science that we need to counter bioterrorism."

by Joyce Gramza

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