Ferreting things out: Biosecurity, pandemic flu and the transformation of experimental systems
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At the end of 2011, microbiologists created a scientific and media frenzy by genetically engineering mutant avian flu viruses that transmitted through the air between ferrets, the animal most widely used to model human flu. Though the studies offered new evidence of avian flu’s pandemic potential, they were nevertheless restricted from publication because of concerns about their possible threat to human health and security. In this article, I examine the mutant flu controversy to show how nascent biosecurity regulations engender transformations in experimental systems; namely, in the use and interpretation of experimental organisms, and in the establishment of a culture of security among a globalizing community of scientists. Drawing on analyses of academic publications, interviews with microbiologists and biosecurity regulators, and ethnographic observations at a biosecure laboratory, I show how these experimental transformations are structured by the local demands of scientific production as well as by broader concerns about biosecurity made visible in formal and informal regulations on scientific conduct. I further argue that while the controversy signals unprecedented controls over publication in the biological sciences, such controls build upon and extend on-going shifts in scientific thought and practice in the wake of pandemic threats.
KeywordsH5N1 pandemic flu dual-use research biosecurity biosafety animal models
The research on which this original material is based has been subject to ethical review at the University of Oxford. I do not have any competing intellectual or financial interests in the research detailed in the manuscript. The research for this article was provided by the European Research Council under the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FPT/2007-2013/ERC grant agreement no. 263447 (BioProperty). I would like to thank my colleagues at the Institute for Science, Innnovation, and Society and the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford for their insightful comments on this article. I also gratefully acknowledge the critical commentary provided by Amy Hinterberger, Sabina Leonelli, Javier Lezaun, Catherine Montgomery, Kaushik Sunder Rajan, and the anonymous reviewers at BioSocieties. A special thanks is due to the numerous participants and interlocutors of this research in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam, who generously shared their time, facilities, resources, and insights to inform this article.
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