Wendy Barclay: Should scientific knowledge which could be used as a bioweapon be withheld from publication?

An influenza expert speaks out against the censorship of controversial bird flu research

Professor Wendy Barclay, the chair in influenza virology at Imperial College London, speaks to Free Speech Debate about the decision to withhold publication of bird flu research from journals Science and Nature for fear that it could be used by terrorists as a bioweapon. Barclay says that while she can’t exclude the possibility of a scientist in a rogue state re-creating the man-made strain at the centre of the controversy, which unlike naturally occurring strains of bird flu is transmissible between humans, it would require significant know-how. She says: “The chances of misuse are pretty slim and weighing up the costs and benefits, I think there are many reasons for people around the world to read this material for scientific interest, for public health information and for aiding the development of vaccines.” Barclay adds that the decision by certain authorities, in this case, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, to censor this type of information is of further concern. She says: “If we’re going to go down that route then we need to think about who those bodies are and how on earth they will know who in the world should know this stuff.”

(Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

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