13.03.2012 - Social and Human Sciences Sector

Mutant virus H5N1: “The problem is not whether you say everything but how you say it.” - Interview with Stefano Semplici

© UNESCO -Stefano Semplici - President of the International Bioethics Committee (IBC)

Stefano Semplici, Chair of the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) since June 2011 and Professor of Social Ethics at University Tor Vergata (Rome, Italy), reacts to the controversy around the publication of studies on the H5N1 influenza virus which muted in laboratory.

On 18 February, experts gathered by WHO, agreed on the publication of the results of the studies on the H5N1 mutation. What is your opinion about this agreement?

What we are discussing here is a typical example of what we could call a “bioethical trade-off”. It goes without saying that both disseminating information about the results of research and avoiding risks for public health are essential responsibilities not only for governments, but also for the scientific community itself. Unfortunately, it may happen that a decision becomes unavoidable: either we try to speed up the pace of science, accepting by the same token greater risks, or we decide not to take the risks, withholding access to relevant information from researchers throughout the world.

In this case, the conundrum really seems to be insurmountable: full disclosure of information can be very helpful for a better understanding of the properties of these viruses, but they were aware of valid concerns about possible new risks to human safety, because the laboratory-modified viruses appear to be more easily transmitted among mammals, and much more lethal.

The experts were called upon to balance their assessment. They expressed their preference for full disclosure of the research results, under the condition that a review of the essential biosafety and biosecurity aspects should be carried out before publication. Experts thus found a compromise between disseminating information and avoiding risks.

This case elicits the matter of public awareness to the issues raised by advances in sciences? Can we or should we make everything public?

Scientific literacy and the awareness of the possible applications and consequences of the progress of scientific research are essential features of a democratic society, just because those applications and consequences deeply affect and reshape everyone’s life. True respect for the autonomy of individuals and policies established accordingly can only be predicated on reliable and updated information, public debate, and willingness to change one’s mind and attitudes when confronted with sound arguments.

The problem is not whether we ought to say or not to say everything. The problem is how the public is provided information about health and especially global health issues. Scientists as well as media professionals share the responsibility to avoid undue sensationalism and alarmism, that may cause and have recently caused uncertainties, if not panic, and also economic losses.

What are the main topics on the agenda of the International Bioethics Committee in 2012?

The Committee will keep working on the ethical implications of traditional medicine, in the context of the principle of respect for cultural diversity and the necessity to consider it just as a medicine, which, as such, has to comply with acknowledged standards of quality. The aim is to finalize a Report during the next IBC Session, which will be held in Paris in the second semester of 2012.

At the same time, the Committee will focus on the principle of non-discrimination and non-stigmatization as set forth in Article 11 of the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005). The idea is to use this principle as a “conceptual umbrella”, under which the new risks arising in different sensitive areas of biomedicine – such as biobanks, organs trafficking, neurosciences, nanotechnologies – are going to be dealt with. This transversal approach is the essential feature of the Committee as a “global forum” for bioethics.

Interview by Cathy Bruno-Capvert

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