The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and the slippery slope of censorship – Part 1 – The wrong focus

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has been in the news recently because it has advocated, strongly, the censorship of flu research which has created an H5N1 virus which is highly lethal and highly infectious among ferrets.

For a scientist, censorship is considered a violation of our fundamental mission: free enquiry and dissemination of the results of that enquiry. The story of the persecution of Galileo for stating the simple truth is strongly impressed on our consciousness. The vast majority of us are outraged by and fight against attempts to suppress the teaching of evolution in schools. For us, sharing what we learn about the natural world with others is a core part of our mission. People who try to stop this are our natural enemies.

Thus, I find myself in a strange position. The people who are censoring this flu research include my fellow scientists, some of them quite well-known and respected. What has caused them to turn their backs on their core responsibility as scientists? For many of them, I believe it is fear. Perhaps blind, unreasoning fear.

When I first realised the consequences of a high CFR flu pandemic (years ago), my initial reaction was shock followed by strong fear. This, in itself, is not an irrational response. As has been discussed in Flublogia for many years, a high CFR flu pandemic would be devastating to the world’s population. It is difficult to estimate the losses, but it would surely rank among the greatest disasters to befall mankind.

After the initial shock, fear motivated me to prepare for such an event. At first, I assumed that the government would have a well-thought out response to a high CFR pandemic. I was certain that this would involve movement restrictions until an effective vaccine could be produced. Although I imagined that plans were in place for the distribution of food and other necessities, I still thought it prudent to prepare to stay in my house for the time that a local outbreak typically lasts – 6 to 12 weeks. I knew other scientists who were making similar preparations, so I was unconcerned about the scorn such preparations received in the mainstream media. But I was puzzled by it. Why weren’t leaders in public health strongly pushing for these preparations? Surely they understood the risks as I and other scientists did.

Recent work by Dr. Fouchier and his colleagues have shown that H5N1 could become a high CFR pandemic strain. This is not inevitable, as Dr. Kawaoka’s work apparently shows that H5N1 could go pandemic with a lower kill rate. But clearly, a high CFR, highly infectious virus is in the realm of possibilities. Given this finding, one would naturally assume that the predominant response would be gratitude that we know this before a pandemic has started so that the public could be alerted to start preparing.

This has not happened.

Instead, almost all media attention has focused NSABB’s censorship of the results. Although the Chair of NSABB, Dr. Paul Keim, correctly notes that the world is not prepared for a high CFR pandemic, he gives no indication of what the public should do to prepare for such an event. Indeed, he gives the false impression that terrorists’ use of this knowledge is the main threat. He ignores the fact that the virus could go pandemic naturally. He also fails to discuss the possibility of strategic use of such a virus by a nation-state. He further suggests that by censoring this research, governments will use the time to prepare for a high CFR pandemic. I’m afraid this assumption is also likely to be false.

Governments have known for over 9 years that a high CFR pandemic is a possibility. Although there has been some progress in basic vaccine research, this has not yet been translated to a plan for rapid vaccination. Instead, the only way to survive the first wave of a high CFR pandemic will be to avoid being infected. And this means movement restrictions, either imposed by the others or self-imposed.

DoD plans for a smallpox outbreak include draconian movement restrictions. These can be justified because it is at least theoretically possible to supply a single city while stockpiles of vaccine are distributed. However, such a plan is certain to fail in confusion and terror should multiple cities be afflicted with a high CFR, highly infectious virus for which there is no immediate vaccine. This is because, currently, the vast majority of the US population has made no plans for such an event and the government has no serious plans for providing supplies for mulitple large cities.

Given that we know that current government plans will fail in a high CFR flu pandemic, why isn’t the public being warned to prepare? Why is there no discussion of movement restrictions?

Is this also censored? If so, why?


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