This past week the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity requested that scientists withhold publication on some of the detailed methods used for creating a form of the H5N1 avian flu virus that can be transmitted in an airborne form. According to news reports, scientists in the Netherlands and the US created a mutated form of the H5N1 virus that could be transmitted between mammals (ferrets) in airborne droplets such as those generated by coughs and sneezes.
H5N1 avian flu at present does not readily infect humans. Most of the human cases of the H5N1 virus infection have resulted from direct contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces. However, once contracted, H5N1 avian flu is exceedingly lethal in humans with a mortality rate of approximately 60%. This contrasts with a historical mortality rate of approximately 35% for smallpox. The emergence of a strain of H5N1 avian flu that could be easily transmitted between humans would have the potential of causing a world-wide disastrous epidemic involving hundreds of millions of deaths.
There are two issues that have been raised with the current research. One is whether the strain that was developed might escape the laboratory and either infect humans or evolve into a form that could. The second issue is whether a terrorist group, or a group that would like to accelerate the oncoming of Armageddon, could apply the methods of this research to develop a virus that could cause a worldwide pandemic.
On the flip side, the strength of the scientific method is its openness and transparency. Scientists learn from other scientists and continually check each other’s results. Restraint on scientific publication is inimical to the progress of science which has produced great benefits for humankind. In this particular case the scientists involved have stated that their research may be helpful for the development of vaccines against H5N1 and new strains that may emerge.
Such issues have come up in the past, for example when an active polio virus was synthesized and when the genes of the influenza virus that caused the devastating 1918 pandemic were characterized.
I do not know the details of the risks involved in the current research, so I will address the issue more generally. It is extremely important that science be maintained as open a system as possible. At the same time, certain types of research which have the potential for causing direct harm to the public, or may lead to the development of terrorist weapons, do need to be regulated. It is not sufficient just for the scientists involved to make the decisions of whether to pursue such research. The public (who also pays for most academic research) has a right to be protected in the very rare cases when there is a direct hazard resulting from academic research. Academic scientists should not be free, for example, to develop weapons of mass destruction or to weaponize biological agents.
Academic research is already in fact subject to substantial regulation in terms of how funds can be spent, controls on animal and human research, use of toxic agents, conflicts of interest, etc. I am not proposing here a detailed mechanism to regulate research that may pose a substantial risk, but some sort of oversight board should consider the risks and benefits of research that might pose a substantial safety risk to the public. The fraction of academic scientific research that should need to be reviewed for such risks should be extremely tiny – it is extraordinarily rare that academic research poses any risk to the public.
In regard to the current case, I don’t think it will matter much whether parts of the methods are left out of the scientific publications. Firstly, the methods have likely already been shared with other scientists. Secondly, once it is has been demonstrated that the H5N1 avian flu can be mutated to a form which can be transmitted by airborne droplets, another skilled group could figure out the methods to reproduce the work.
Hopefully, one benefit of the current story is that efforts will be accelerated to develop the capability to rapidly produce vaccines for new infectious agents and to develop new and more effective anti-viral agents.
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