The public response to the reconstruction of the 1918 influenza virus was somewhat tempered by the release of additional information regarding the experiments and their justification. In addition to the editorial accompanying the research article in Science magazine, a statement was released by Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease at the NIH and Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the CDC. The statement, which was quoted throughout the news media, highlighted the review process that took place prior to publication. It also focused on the benefits of the study in predicting and preventing a future bird flu pandemic, asserting that based on the work “we know that the H5N1 virus currently circulating in Asia has acquired five of the 10 gene sequence changes associated with human-to-human transmission of the 1918 virus.” Dr. Fauci and Dr. Gerberding gave their support to the recommendations of the NSABB saying that “moving forward with research conducted by the world’s top scientists and openly disseminating their research results remain our best defense against H5N1 avian influenza virus and other dangerous pathogens that may emerge or re-emerge, naturally or deliberately.”
Considering the public health benefits of this work as well as the potential for dual-use, the question is raised of whether or not the work should be done, and who gets to make that decision. Perhaps this is the type of sensitive work that should be classified, but classification could undermine the openness of publication and information sharing that is essential to biological research. In the US the NSABB has been formed to review and set out guidelines for dual-use and sensitive research. However, science is not bound by national borders and different countries have different standards. The only international agreement pertaining to biological research is the BWC, which only refers to weapons development.