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The (Ferret) Sneeze Heard around the World: The Case of the Bioengineered Bird Flu - STIRS Student Case Study

Jill M. Manske, PhD
Department of Biology, University of St. Thomas
St Paul, Minnesota
jmmanske@stthomas.edu

Abstract:  This case study explores Gain of Function (GOF) research and Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). It is based on the actual events and controversy regarding experiments in which highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza was engineered to be transmissible between mammals, and the issue of whether or not the papers describing this work should be published. Part 1 introduces the story, some basic background of influenza, and the concept of Dual Use Research of Concern.  Part 2 walks students through the experiments that were the focus of the controversy.  In the third part of the case, students read and watch some of the debates conducted during the controversy and evaluate the arguments.  In the final part of the case, students debate the question that was central to the controversy: should gain-of-function experiments on highly pathogenic agents such as avian influenza proceed and be published in full? The case can be taught in full, or broken up into units that the instructor can select depending on learning goals, course topic, and student experience.   Through this case, students will understand the basic biology and epidemiology of influenza and reinforce quantitative skills including: interpretation of data and figures; evaluation of vaccine efficacy and effectiveness; disease surveillance; calculation and interpretation of case-fatality rates; and risk calculation and communication. Students also will explore how scientific data inform policy and related questions of scientific ethics. This is an analysis case based on actual events and studies, which also includes elements of Discussion and Debate.

Use in Courses: This case study was initially developed for an undergraduate senior level seminar in Emerging Infectious Disease. Case material also is relevant to courses in biology, environmental science, technology and society, policy, or ethics.  The case can be easily adapted to be taught either as a whole, or in parts.  This case can be taught as an interrupted case throughout the course of a semester, or within a shorter unit.

Depending on their learning goals and student backgrounds, instructors may choose to emphasize certain parts of the case and particular key questions.  Some specific suggestions for using this case in non-majors and introductory classes are provided in the Facilitator's Guide.

This case can be used in first year seminars as well as capstone experiences. It serves as an engaging case for interdisciplinary courses or theme-based courses. 

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Professor Manske was named an AAC&U STIRS Scholar in 2014 and developed this case for the STIRS Program.