This week the prestigious science journal, Nature, published the methods and results of a groundbreaking new experiment in biotechnology, reigniting a firestorm that has been raging on and off for nearly a year. The reason for the controversy is the ghastly topic of the research paper: How to genetically engineer the avian influenza virus (H5N1) to make it more communicable.
Although H5N1 (i.e. “bird flu”) has existed in bird populations for decades, it entered the public consciousness in 2004, when human cases began surfacing in China and Southeast Asia. The cases were quickly linked to contact with poultry – mostly slaughterhouse workers or chicken farmers, who directly worked with chickens in insanitary conditions. H5N1 was far more virulent than the seasonal strains of influenza which have been circulating since 1918; over 60% of people who have contracted H5N1 in the past eight years have died from it. Fortunately, there has been no pandemic. Only 600 people worldwide are known to have had avian influenza. Although it appears that humans can acquire the disease directly from birds, there have been no known cases of human-to-human transmission – a prerequisite for a global pandemic. Although influenza viruses mutate very quickly, the lack of human-to-human transmission caused some complacency. Some epidemiologists even went so far as to state that human-to-human transmission of H5N1 might be impossible.
The new research blows that theory out of the water. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin and Erasmus Medical College succeeded in taking the H5N1 virus and combining it with the H1N1 (“swine flu”) virus. Swine flu is known to be easily communicable between humans but relatively mild; bird flu is known to be extremely deadly but difficult to transmit. By combining the two into a hybrid and making other modifications to the genes of the virus, scientists developed a “super-strain” of flu. They tested the virus on ferrets, which have an immune system very similar to humans. Not only did many of the ferrets die, but the disease was easily transmitted to other ferrets who were not directly exposed to the virus themselves.
The research has horrified many scientists. Governments remain gravely concerned about its publication in Nature. In the United States, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity requested that Nature not publish the findings in the interest of national security. Although academia typically does not view censorship kindly, many scientists found themselves agreeing with the government. Biologist and Nobel-laureate Sir Richard Roberts said, “Someone is trying to make the most dangerous virus we can think of. I don't understand how one can justify that, unless there is no other way of getting the data that you're interested in.” The risks are huge: Nature published the methodology that the scientists used to create their super-strain of flu, potentially providing a blueprint for terrorists to replicate their efforts. Additionally, there is the concern that if research like this isn't shunned, it will continue apace and may one day escape the laboratory through simple error.
Other scientists believe that publishing the research is necessary, in order to prevent future outbreaks. They argue that if we can learn more about how influenza mutates and infects new people, we will be better prepared to deal with a future pandemic. They acknowledge the dangers of the research, but argue that there is no avoiding the fact that it will soon be possible to create bioengineered diseases, and it is better to be prepared for them when they do occur. Additionally, there is the possibility that H5N1 may eventually evolve into a more communicable form on its own, for which epidemiologists should prepare. Last month, the US government finally relented. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity reversed itself, voting 12-6 to allow the publication of the research to proceed.
As it stands, I find myself on the side of those urging extreme caution with this type of research. Bioterrorism will be the greatest security threat of the early 21st century; unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons will soon be available to many people. Futurist Michio Kaku warns that in the not-too-distant future, creating new viruses may be as simple as typing base letters into a piece of software and having a computer assemble the DNA strand. When that happens, we may have no choice but to fund research to prevent diseases that do not yet exist in nature. But until then, it seems that the risks greatly outweigh the rewards.