Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

WHO's afraid of chicken? Some want mutant bird flu strain kept top secret

No laughing matter: Some worry a mutant strain of bird flu could turn this chicken into a weapon of mass destruction.
No laughing matter: Some worry a mutant strain of bird flu could turn this chicken into a weapon of mass destruction.

Seems silly to talk about weaponized chickens, but that’s exactly the kind of talk world leaders have become afraid of.

The latest debate raging among scientists is whether to publish the results of recent experiments done on the bird flu virus. Those experiments have created a super deadly version of the H5N1 virus that could potentially be loosed by chickens (or other birds) and kill many tens of millions of people.

Some think the research should never have been done, that these scientists have basically created a viral mutant that could create the most deadly infectious disease ever seen in modern history. Others say the research is important and valuable, but the findings should be kept secret since they pose a major threat to human health.

Those making the less emotional and more difficult case for scientific transparency, open exchange of information and public debate contend the risks have been exaggerated.

So, should the information be published or not?

“Biology has never done this before,” said Dr. Samuel Miller, head of the NIH’s Northwest Regional Center for BioDefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases in Seattle.

This could be a critical moment for the biological sciences, Miller said, which has – like most of science – operated according to the fundamental tenet of the free exchange of information, transparency of methods and open, public debate as to the findings.

“What we are talking about here is really a fundamental change, about basically classifying a portion of biological research,” he said. Much of the physics community was forced into secrecy during World War II, Miller said, but nothing like this has ever been done for biology.

Read about the science and the upcoming “closed-door” meeting at the World Health Organization and voice your opinion at Humanosphere.


The host of the Humanosphere community is Tom Paulson, who spent 22 years reporting on science and medicine at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Tom was one of the first daily news reporters to cover the topic of “global health” (a much-debated label which he discusses the merits of on the Humanosphere website).