U.S. health and law expert supports weaponized H5N1 moratorium

A U.S. public health and law expert recently explained his support for the voluntary moratorium on research into a highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 influenza.

The two month halt in research is being observed by nearly 40 high-level influenza scientists, including those from the two teams at the center of the controversy surrounding the publication of potentially dangerous material.

John Kraemer, an assistant professor of health systems administration at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., studies public health law and ethics, focusing on the legal and ethical limits of government action to address health issues. Kraemer recently came out in support of the moratorium decision.

"This is a laudable decision to make sure that all voices are heard on such an important issue," Kraemer said. "The moratorium will provide an opportunity for institutions to assess the best way of overseeing dual use research - that which has both significant potential for public health benefits and a chance for harm."

In mid-January, Kraemer and his colleague, Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown professor of global health law, published an invited opinion about the issue in the journal Science. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for International Security had recently asked Science, as well the journal Nature, not publish portions of two studies that revealed how a strain of H5N1 influenza could be made transmissible in humans.

Kraemer and Gostin argued that the government request was not a violation of the First Amendment, but cautioned that it was preferable for government constraints on disseminating scientific information to be limited.

"The NSABB process seems to have worked well in this instance," Kraemer said. "It raised legitimate security concerns while avoiding censorship of the scientific press. But there remains a need to strengthen precautions around this type of research before scientific censorship occurs."