James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Guest Post: Laurie Garrett on Man-Made Deadly Flu

by
December 21, 2011

Health workers pack dead chicken at a wholesale poultry market in Hong Kong December 21, 2011. Workers began culling 17,000 chickens at a wholesale poultry market in Hong Kong on Wednesday after a dead chicken there tested positive for the deadly H5N1 avian virus, a government spokesman said. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Health workers pack dead chicken at a wholesale poultry market in Hong Kong December 21, 2011. Workers began culling 17,000 chickens at a wholesale poultry market in Hong Kong on Wednesday after a dead chicken there tested positive for the deadly H5N1 avian virus. (Tyrone Si/courtesy Reuters)

My colleague Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer, wrote a riveting article last week for Foreign Policy on how scientists have created a variant of the bird flu virus that is highly communicable and lethal among mammals. Yesterday, for the first time ever, a U.S. government advisory board asked scientific journals not to publish certain details about how the new virus was created. I asked Laurie to explain what all this means. Here is what she had to say:

Today, December 20, 2011, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) released its decision regarding publication of two scientific papers claiming to have made a “super-flu” variant of the H5N1 avian virus. Two research teams, from the Netherlands and Wisconsin, separately claimed in September to have man-made genetic variants of the widely circulating H5N1 virus, rendering the flu not only transmissible man-to-man, but also more than 50 percent lethal.

As I described last week, the research sparked a range of fears, including concern that what amounts to the most dangerous human pathogen ever known to have existed could escape its laboratory confines, with disastrous repercussions; that publication of the “how-to” aspects of the experiments could constitute handing a catastrophe cookbook to terrorists or malevolent individuals; and that recent proliferation in high security biology labs worldwide has increased the risk of both lab accidents and untraceable bioterrorism research.

The NSABB faced three basic options regarding publication of papers by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University in Rotterdam and Yoshi Kawaoke of the University of Wisconsin in Madison:

1)      Advise all credible scientific publications to decline release of the papers, essentially censoring the work;

2)      Allow full and free publication of both papers;

3)      Advise publication, but with key passages related to how the feats were performed, deleted.

The NSABB essentially opted for number three, suggesting to Science, Nature, and other major journals that they agree to publish the two studies, but omit some of the materials and methods sections, allowing scientists to know what was done, but not how:

Due to the importance of the findings to the public health and research communities, the NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm. The NSABB also recommended that language be added to the manuscripts to explain better the goals and potential public health benefits of the research, and to detail the extensive safety and security measures taken to protect laboratory workers and the public.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a statement today, responding to the NSABB (which technically is an advisory board to the HHS):

The NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.

The NSABB also recommended that language be added to the manuscripts to explain better the goals and potential public health benefits of the research, and to detail the extensive safety and security measures taken to protect laboratory workers and the public.

HHS agreed with this assessment and provided these non-binding recommendations to the authors and journal editors.

One of the journals likely to publish the research is Science magazine. Science Editor-in-Chief Dr. Bruce Alberts issued a statement today:

Science editors will be evaluating how best to proceed. Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any  information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety.

The British journal Nature is also likely to publish one or both papers, and today its Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell said:

We have noted the unprecedented NSABB recommendations that would restrict public access to data and methods and recognize the motivation behind them. It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers. We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled.

Where does this leave us? The papers will be published, and smart scientists working in virology or allied professions will read between the lines, reckoning exactly how the super-flus were created. The University of Wisconsin released a statement this week insisting that Kawaoke has not made a “super-flu” and welcoming the opportunity to clear the air on his research. Rotterdam’s Fouchier, however, has made a form of bird flu that is readily transmitted airborne between mammals (presumably including humans) with a lethality of about 60 percent: the work will be eagerly digested by scientists all over the world.

The NSABB decision will satisfy almost nobody. Advocates for scientific openness will bristle at any censorship, whether it involve a few sentences or an entire article. Conversely, those that fear bioterrorist use of such information will scoff at the notion that deleting a few paragraphs of methodology will in any way deter dedicated miscreants.

In the end the most important, and alarming aspect of this tale is that human beings were able to turn a fairly harmless (to mammals) virus into possibly the worst microbe to have ever co-existed with our species, and did so inside academic facilities. There was considerable debate inside the NSABB regarding whether it should recommend that all future work on the virus be conducted exclusively inside BioSafety-Level 4 (BSL-4) labs, the highest security facilities – significantly more stringent environs than those in which Fouchier and Kawaoke’s teams toil. It seems the Board punted, avoiding the question.

It is now up to federal authorities in the U.S., Netherlands, and elsewhere to decide whether to sequester the deadly microbes, and experiments conducted on them, inside BSL-4 confines.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by John Moore

    I am writing as a virologist, although not one who works on influenza. I am also writing from a more general perspective as a scientist. I can understand, as a virologist, why these studies were done: it is relevant to find out how, and how easily, the avian influenza can become more readily transmissible to and among humans. That’s potentially valuable information, not least for helping track the emergence of natural virus variants that are potentially more dangerous. So I don’t doubt there was a legitimate scientific reason for the research.

    But… There are genuine concerns about the implications of this research, both from the public health perspective and in terms of how science is viewed by the public/pundits/politicians. Working with viruses to make lethal mutants is not “garden shed science”, but nor is it beyond the capabilities of malicious minds given sufficient financial resources. So it cannot be discounted that this kind of information could be used against humanity.

    Furthermore, the tone of the press coverage I have seen so far is, while guarded, already tending to the negative. I expect that it will not be long before the scientific community is criticized for allowing this work to be done. I can imagine politicians weighing in during the current US election campaign, not least in the GoP Primary given the anti-science attitudes of several candidates. Some of the criticism will be strident, unfair and inaccurate, but that’s the nature of contemporary punditry and politicking. Overall I fear that this research will harm the perception and reputation of science more than the benefits justify doing it.

    I certainly favor not publishing the most critical details of how the viruses become more transmissible. That’s an appropriate restriction in the circumstances. Why give an evil person/organization extra help? The key information is already available to those scientists and officials who are most able to use it wisely.

    But we should also recall that enough knowledge of the experiments already exists in scientific circles to enable the key mutations to be identified. The genie may already have been aerosolized from Pandora’s box… And that’s worrying.

    I don’t like restrictions on scientific discovery and the free interchange of data. But there are extreme circumstances when the normal codes don’t apply, and I think we’re into that territory here. In the circumstances, I believe it would have been better had this work been conducted entirely ‘in camera’, with the information made available on a true ‘need to know’ basis. That approach would have increased the benefit/risk ratio. But it’s too late now…

  • Posted by Michael V

    Suppression of information never works in the long run. But one can hardly blame the NSABB for trying to take the middle path, given the enormity of the potential consequences that would attend public release of the full studies. The fact is that the nation and the world are grossly unprepared to deal with the bio threat. This is not just “a” national security threat, but arguably the biggest national security threat we face, given the level of fatality a malicious microbe could cause and the utter lack of a plan to prevent or minimize the loss of life. And as our scientists learn more about the workings of deadly viruses, their knowledge inevitably will be used by malefactors to craft new weapons. Do we need to experience the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people–or more–before our policymakers take the threat more seriously and undertake urgent measures to prepare us?

  • Posted by Doug Thomson

    It seems to me that we are doomed as a species. We are far too ignorant to manage our intelligence. I have no doubt the funders and scientists responsible for this diabolical research think they can contain the monsters they have created. Such hubris.

  • Posted by Interface

    There will be more investment in biosecurity of laboratories, maybe requiring BSL 4 for all such handling of H5N1 from now on.

    What about all the H5N1 circulating in “nature”? Most of it is in domesticated animals. Not much interest in investing in biosecurity or control of the pathogen there.

    There are millions (if not billions) of interactions between pigs and infected poultry every month. Once the wrong chicken will meet the wrong pig. Or maybe even a ferret. This is more likely with low investments in livestock disease control in developing countries, less likely if governments make such investments.

    The problem of disease in animals is also “man-made” since they are all domesticated…. So the lab-made virus problem is not the only man-made source of a pandemic threat.

  • Posted by Polly Ann

    Worry not! I don’t see what could possibly go wrong with this endeavour.

  • Posted by mainvision

    It’s the usual question: freedom of information v safety. I would vote for freedom of information, any time. However, we know who will be eagerly looking for ways of replicating the experiment: every professional or wannabe terrorist, from Al Qaida to home-grown nut cases. At least governments realize that this kind of bioweapon is impossible to manage: once the infection is out, there is no way of restricting the pandemic to one area. But terrorists don’t care about loss of life, including their own, so they would be happy to use this kind of super weapon, to achieve their ultimate goal, whatever it is. So, keep it under wraps, lock it tight and exert vigilance. At least it may delay the spread of the methodology, if not block it completely.

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