To publish and perish? Scientists create scary new flu bug

The U.S. government is opposing full publication by scientists of their methods used to create a mutant form of bird influenza based on the fear it could be used by terrorists to launch a deadly pandemic.

As reasonable as this may sound, many see the government’s position as unworkable and inappropriate.

As Nature magazine and GlobalPost report, some say the researchers should not be allowed to publish their findings because such knowledge would be dangerous in the wrong hands.

On Friday, a compromise position was floated — a three-month hold on publishing while the scientific community figures out how to balance the fundamental need for free and open exchange of ideas with the desire to minimize the potential risk of misuse of scientific information to do harm.

The mutant strain of flu variant H5N1 was created as part of ongoing research to prepare for a major pandemic. As Nature reports:

The mutant strains were not born out of a reckless desire to push the boundaries of high-risk science, but to gain a better understanding of the potential for avian H5N1 to mutate into a form that can spread easily in humans through coughing or sneezing.

That seems prudent enough, but some outside the scientific community are raising the alarm over plans to publish the findings in scientific journals. As The Independent reported:

A deadly strain of bird flu with the potential to infect and kill millions of people has been created in a laboratory by European scientists – who now want to publish full details of how they did it.

The discovery has prompted fears within the US Government that the knowledge will fall into the hands of terrorists wanting to use it as a bio-weapon of mass destruction.

There is reason for caution and precautions have already being taken, beginning with the standard laboratory containment measures. But this is also perhaps evidence why we need to better educate people — apparently including many folks in positions of great power — on statistics and relative risk.

For one thing, the evidence so far that this lab-created strain of bird flu poses a risk to humans is uncertain. As the GlobalPost story notes:

A research team led by Ron Fouchier at Rotterdam’s Erasmus Medical Center said in September it had created a mutant version of the H5N1 bird flu virus that could for the first time be spread among mammals, the AFP reported. The bird flu strain is fatal in 60 percent of human cases although only 350 people have died from the disease because it isn’t transmittable among humans yet.

The fact that natural bird flu “isn’t transmittable among humans yet” is not a small point. There are lots of horrifically deadly bugs out there — like Ebola — that never seem to get very far due to poor transmission. Bad luck for the few who get infected, but good luck for most of us.

The Dutch researchers report altering the H5N1 variant so that it was more easily transmitted as an aerosol among the test animals, ferrets. This is worrisome but there are many reasons why this aerosolized transfer in a lab among ferrets would not translate into airborne transmission of this flu virus between humans in the real world.

In fact, the scientific record indicates such bugs tend to do very poorly outside the confines of a lab.

Secondly, why are we worrying so much about this latest hypothetical “super-bug” risk when we don’t get that excited about microbial killers already in our midst? Natural seasonal influenza kills plenty of people already and bird flu is already out there, modifying itself as it spreads. The idea behind this research is to find a means of protecting against the next pandemic — not prematurely freak out before it gets here.

Many see government control of scientific information as a dangerously slippery slope — one in which political calculations will almost certainly seep in as attempts to protect the public. 

Such attempts at secrecy in science usually fail anyway. In this case, they seem almost certain to fail since the information at issue here doesn’t appear to be very privileged: Other teams are working on similar studies and scientists at CDC already published a study along similar lines.

As reported by The Independent newspaper:

“The exact mutations that made this transformation possible were not particularly novel or unexpected so anyone with a reasonable knowledge of influenza virology could probably guess at them if they so wished,” said Wendy Barclay, professor of influenza virology at Imperial College London.“I’m very wary that information should be withheld from the scientific literature because we move forward by sharing information.”

It may be hard to make the abstract case for the public good of open and unfettered exchange of ideas when someone is waving the pandemic flag in your face. But that doesn’t mean it’s less important.

As Laurie Garrett noted at the very end of her excellent article on this episode in Foreign Policy, The Bioterrorist Next Door, quoting some dialogue from the movie Contagion:

“Is there any way someone could weaponize the bird flu? Is that what we’re looking at?”

“Someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird flu,” scientist says. “The birds are doing that.”

As Laurie noted on her blog, the U.S. government’s Solomon-like approach to this is likely to please nobody and do little to either advance the science or enhance public safety.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.