Debbie Knight

A fly on the wall

In observation on March 13, 2012 at 9:00 am

I was a fly on the wall this week.

I sat in the back of a classroom as graduate students discussed, dissected and debated whether two controversial studies on the bird flu virus (Influenza H5N1) should be published in their entirety.

The scientific manuscripts in question were submitted to Science and Nature for publication. These reports reveal the exact mutations the scientists created giving the bird flu virus the ability to pass airborne from one mammal to another (in this case, a ferret – a commonly used animal model to study airborne virus transmission). The studies suggest that with a little reshuffling of the virus’ genetic material –whether by Mother Nature or in the laboratory – the mutated virus may pass from human to human via a sneeze or a cough. Up to this point, the bird flu (the one found in nature without these mutations) typically passes to humans only by direct physical contact with an infected bird, killing about six in ten people it infects.

The controversy arises because the manuscripts give the details on how the mutant viruses were made and what the exact genetic sequences are — a possible recipe for disaster if the information falls into the wrong hands, such as a bioterrorist.

The bird flu virus (Influenza H5N1). Photo from CDC

Since the students couldn’t read the actual manuscripts, they had to prepare for their classroom debate by reviewing four commentaries published in Science this year, one of which was written by the authors of one of these controversial studies. (The references/links for these papers are listed at the end of this post.)

The students also had to consider the recommendations given by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to only publish a portion of the story – the part without the methods and the DNA sequence. These missing parts would be available only on a need-to-know basis because of the risk that the information might be used to craft the virus into a bioweapon.

I can only imagine how difficult making the decision was for the panel of scientists as they set forth an unprecedented recommendation that was published in Science last month.

In this article, they wrote: “There was significant potential for harm in fully publishing these results and that the harm exceeded the benefits of publication, we therefore recommended that the work not be fully communicated in an open forum.”

They continued: “By recommending that the basic result be communicated without methods or details, we believe that the benefits to society are maximized and the risks minimized.”

Did the students agree with this?

Many were skeptical.

One student pointed out that weapons such as guns get to underground groups all the time. And the same may happen with this rather sensitive information.

“No matter what you do to keep that information secure, you’re only going to end up hiding it from your own people that would be developing a vaccine or something helpful,” she said.

Putting the danger of bioterrorism into perspective, one student argued that the polio virus can be made in the lab just from the DNA sequences available online, without even having access to the virus itself. The genetic sequences of smallpox and ebola viruses are available online as well.

“An ebola virus outbreak inNew Yorkmight be slightly more scary than even the bird flu,” he said. “Why choose (a bird flu outbreak) when an ebola outbreak is even much more ‘bioterroristy’?”

Later in the debate he pointed out that terrorists aim for impact (like frightening images). He invoked the iconic images produced when terrorists hit theWorldTradeCenter.

“Ebola? People bleeding out on the streets? That’s a big picture,” he said.

As it turns out, the discussion leader has worked with a virus that was on the list of biowarfare agents.

“It’s actually pretty hard to make bioterrorist agents – especially with viruses,” she said.

Another student pointed out that these papers covering the controversy have served to increase public awareness.

“I’m all for one discussing things openly, but if your aim is to keep information under wraps, why have a debate at all? Just release it to the scientific community – not many other people are going to hear it,” she said.

(I don’t think she considered what would happen if the media focused their beacon on the discovery, but this didn’t come up in the discussion)

One student suggested that scientists and government agencies should work on neutralizing the threat by developing an effective vaccine. (Good point)

By keeping the information on a need-to-know basis, you could be effectively keeping the information from people who could make a difference in developing those vaccines (i.e., researchers not considered as “needing to know”).

“It’s so dumb. The ‘bad guys’ are going to get hold of this (information) somehow, someway. So by keeping it away from all the ‘good guys’ for as long as possible we’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” another student said.

Another professor present was asked to weigh in on the topic.

“I’ve been a scientist for a long time and I really have trouble shaking off the idea that we’re in this business to discover and disseminate,” he said. “I completely agree with the fact that restricting the information in these two papers is not going to stop people who want this information from getting it. I really think it’s going to be an obstacle for developing vaccines and antivirals.”

When the class was polled as to whether the manuscripts should be published in their entirety, the majority of the students raised their hands in favor of revealing all the scientific details.

This left me wondering if we’ve become so accustomed to the idea that there are really no secrets thanks to the Internet and watchdogs like the media. Do we assume that if the information is not openly reported in the scientific literature, it would somehow be leaked (intentionally or inadvertently)? (think WikiLeaks).

Have we, as a society, become so jaded to think that scientific discoveries such as this will be used by a nefarious group of individuals to create a bioweapon even though this same information could be used for the collective good, like developing vaccines?

The sad truth is that, yes, we probably are.

Were the scientists on the NSABB right in recommending that the information contained in these scientific manuscripts not be fully disclosed? Who is to say, but I do think it was a reasonable compromise amongst the board members.

Just imagine the fiery debates and passionate discourses that must have coursed through those meeting rooms!

I would have loved to have been a fly on that wall!

Additional reading:

1. A report written by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity: Adaptations of avian flu virus are a cause for concern. February 10, 2012. Science 335:660-661. Kenneth I. Berns, Arturo Casadevall, Murray L. Cohen, Susan A. Ehrlich, Lynn W. Enquist,  J. Patrick Fitch,  David R. Franz, Claire M. Fraser-Liggett, Christine M. Grant, Michael J. Imperiale, Joseph Kanabrocki, Paul S. Keim, Stanley M. Lemon, Stuart B. Levy, John R. Lumpkin, Jeffery F. Miller, Randall Murch,  Mark E. Nance, Michael T. Osterholm, David A. Relman, James A. Roth, Anne K. Vidaver.

2. A correspondence from the authors of one of the controversial papers: Restricted Data on Influenza H5N1 Virus Transmission. Published online January 19 2012 and in print February 10 2012. Science 335: 662-663. Ron A. M. Fouchier, Sander Herfst, Albert D. M. E. Osterhaus

3. H5N1 Debates: Hung Up on the Wrong Questions. Published Online January 19 2012 and in print  February 17 2012. Science 335: 799-801. Daniel R. Perez.

4. Life Sciences at a Crossroads: Respiratory Transmissible H5N1. Published Online January 19 2012 and in print February 17 2012. Science 335: 801-802. Michael T. Osterholm and Donald A. Henderson.

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