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Academia's Biological Studies in War Time

Ethical Questions

1.) Hypothetical Scenario: You are a microbiologist at a university investigating the way in which viral proteins interact with the human immune system. You have recently completed studies on the smallpox virus’ ability to evade the human immune system. In an attempt to explain why smallpox can kill, you realize that your research could lead to new treatments. As you prepare your research results for publication in a major scientific journal, the question is raised—do you publish the details of your research methods?

Considering that your published research could be used by terrorists to make a more powerful strain of smallpox that could kill even those people who have been vaccinated, will you be compromising national security? On the other hand, if you do not publish this information, scientists around the world will not be alerted of the potential need to develop new treatments and better vaccines to counter the possibility of much more deadly diseases—will you compromise public health? By not publishing your techniques, are you also compromising the peer review process upon which the scientific community is founded? How will your colleagues’ possible criticisms of your choice affect your professional reputation?

2.) Hypothetical Scenario: You are an international student who has just started your doctoral research at a US university. Back home, you have spent your academic career, thus far, studying the Ebola virus in hopes of discovering a vaccine for the deadly virus.

Since being accepted to the PhD program at your university last year, the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act of 2002 was enacted, requiring that all persons possessing select agents, biological agents or toxins deemed a threat to public health, including the Ebola virus, notify the Department of Health and Human Services of their possession. Other recent legislation, including the USA Patriot Act and the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, has led the research and activities of students and scientists from your country to be under more scrutiny by the US State Department and Department of Homeland Security.

Do you begin your research in the US on the Ebola virus while understanding that the new legislation may increase the likelihood of you being closely monitored by the government? Do you change your research to a non-select agent, discarding your invested time and efforts? Do you try and find a different virus to study that has enough of the Ebola virus characteristics and therefore may lead to advances in the understanding of Ebola, but may not be as significant as actually studying Ebola itself?

3.) Over the last two years, the Bush Administration set a new precedent for controlling government documents to protect national security by ordering that close to 6,600 documents be withdrawn from public domain. These technical documents, dealing mainly with the production of germ and chemical weapons, were not originally considered as threats to national security, and therefore were not previously classified.

Does withdrawing documents that had been available to the public for up to 50 years and may be available from other sources protect national security? By removing this information from public domain, will the government limit the competitive scientific process that may produce the next needed advances in countering biological and chemical weapons?