The thought of researchers at a Dutch university deliberately turning the deadly but relatively difficult-to-catch bird-flu virus into a highly infectious airborne super strain is enough to make even the staunchest advocate of scientific progress turn cold.
Not because the work should not have been done: efforts to gauge the threat of mutation – and, therefore, pandemic – are entirely valid. Rather, the issue is what happens to the knowledge of how the experiments were done. In the wrong hands, it could be turned to inconceivably devastating effect, dwarfing even the threat of a dirty nuclear bomb.
The US government watchdog charged with deciding what details should be published must tread a careful line. But it must also err on the side of caution. As has been so perilously proved with nuclear-weapons technology, the genie, once out of the bottle, is impossible to recapture.