Five reasons not to panic about the bird flu experiments

News analysis

The scientific community is in serious kerfuffle right now about whether or not to publish the details of certain bird flu virus experiments.

Angry words are flying back and forth between experts – much like the proverbial behavior of chickens with their heads cut off.

One commentator for Scientific American has even suggested banning all such research.

It’s all a bit much, and probably not good for science or for our global health. I would like to offer five reasons not to panic, but first the background:

The fear among some experts is that terrorists could repeat the experiments, in which genetically altered bird flu viruses, H5N1, were made more easy to transmit in mammals, presumably also in humans.

Based on this, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has suggested censoring some of the research — redacting key portions of it. A few weeks ago, the scientific community agreed to a temporary moratorium on this research while the issues got hashed out.

There are persuasive arguments on both sides of this debate weighing the goal of reducing risk vs. the need for open exchange of knowledge.

But in some ways it’s not a fair fight.

It’s relatively easy for government officials, politicians, the media or hysterical zero-riskers (those who demand zero risk in life) to demand risk reduction at the sacrifice of a select few (medical researchers) or some abstract idea (free and open exchange of information).

It’s much more difficult to make the case for science — for allowing the open, unfettered exploration of things with an uncertain outcome. Good scientific research, by definition, always has a completely uncertain outcome. That’s what makes it science — as opposed to a road map.

Studies on the bird flu virus H5N1 are being done in order to give us knowledge of the virus in case it does become more infectious in humans.

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Research into H5N1 is categorized as ‘dual-use’ research because it can, in theory, be used for good or ill. But this ‘dual-use’ moniker has always been a somewhat squishy and arbitrary designation since almost anything (I’m thinking of a hammer) can be used for good or ill.

Fritz Haber

For example, is the Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation process a good thing?

It’s the chemical process developed nearly a century ago that is used to make fertilizer and feed the world. But it’s also how the Germans developed poison gas and committed what some say were war crimes. It’s the basic chemistry that allowed Timothy McVeigh in 1995 to blow up the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City.

Should that science have been kept under wraps? Could it have been?

Smarter people than me will have to decide if censoring science will actually make us safer. I have my doubts.

Given that the trend in this debate, at least that part of it being held in public, is emphasizing the fears of allowing the science to proceed unfettered, I’d like to toss out five reasons why you should not panic:

  1. H5N1 is really good at killing chickens and the lab-altered H5N1 virus did spread easily among the test animals, ferrets, in a laboratory setting. But they’re still ferrets – not people. Here’s one of a number of recent scientific papers that says why this distinction does matter.
  2. Terrorists tend to like weapons that target people or things. Spreading a virus is a bit like throwing gas on yourself in a rock concert to try to get the band to play a different tune. A truly ‘weaponized’ virus kills in all directions, including your fellow terrorists. Not as attractive as bombs or hijacked airplanes.
  3. One of the two scientific teams at the center of this kerfuffle noted that the altered H5N1 virus did spread easier but it wasn’t fatal to the ferrets. Ferrets are used in flu studies because they are especially susceptible to serious flu illnesses. So even a high ferret fatality rate in these studies may not mean anything for humans; and one of the studies seemed to show no fatalities.
  4. What happens in the lab often stays in the lab. The media and Hollywood love to do stories about bugs leaking out of labs and spreading across the globe wreaking havoc. But the reality is that most bugs in labs are fragile wienies who can’t really handle the real world. In Science magazine, Jon Cohen notes some of the misleading doomsday predictions we’ve made before based on lab flu virus behavior.
  5. Based on the news reports, as many as 1,000 people already know all the details of these experiments the experts are considering censoring. And perhaps as many as a dozen other labs are working on similar experiments involving altered bird flu viruses.
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Why is that last one no reason to panic?

Well, I would say it’s a sign that the scientific research community is already well on its way to improving our knowledge of H5N1. Even if these two papers are censored, the traditional approach of unfettered and open exploration appears likely to continue.

And that’s a good thing because as my colleague and friend Laurie Garrett said in a Dec 2011 piece she wrote on this flap for Foreign Policy called The Bioterrorist Next Door, our focus should not be so much on the possibility of evil-doer humans creating a super bug as on what’s more likely:

We should heed the question posed in the recently released Hollywood thriller Contagion when a Homeland Security character queries a CDC scientist:

“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,” the CDC scientist responds, “The birds are doing that.”

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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.