Friday, January 27, 2012

Dangerous Science

Researchers have reportedly uncovered a dangerous secret, and the way the scientific community chooses to proceed could be a matter of life and death.

The issue at hand is the creation of a modified H5N1 ("bird flu") virus. This is the flu virus that caused global panic several years ago, killing millions of farmed birds and forcing mass-culling of hundreds of millions more to prevent the spread. Hundreds of humans were infected as well, and of those more than half died. This is what sets H5N1 apart -- its alarmingly high mortality rate. Seasonal flus are rarely deadly except in individuals already at risk due to other conditions. H5N1, in contrast, can easily take down a healthy young adult.

A new man-made bird flu virus is easily transmitted in mammals
(image from
Despite the lethal potential of H5N1, previous outbreaks have not resulted in a global pandemic. This is because the spread of bird flu in mammals is very limited - essentially restricted to individuals directly handling infected poultry. A fortunate property of an otherwise very unfortunate virus. Or at least that used to be the case.

Now two groups of scientists have reportedly created a new form of H5N1 that is easily transmitted in mammals. With just a select handful of genetic modifications, the virus can be passed between ferrets simply breathing the same air. From this it's not such a stretch to envision transmission between humans in the same room, or in a subway, or breathing the same recirculating air on an international flight. Imagine the vicious lethality of H5N1 now paired with the highly contagious nature of a seasonal flu. This combination has the potential to unleash a deadly pandemic unlike anything the world has ever seen. So why would scientists ever let this happen? 

The Dual-Use Dilemma 

It's not the first time this question has come up. This is in fact just the most recent example of a dilemma that has plagued the scientific community for years -- the dilemma of dual-use. Dual-use refers to any technology that has potential benefits but could also be extremely dangerous if misused. The typical example is nuclear power. Countries like the U.S. want to allow development of peaceful nuclear energy while preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapon technologies. Maintaining this precarious balance requires concerted international efforts and is an ongoing process.
Nuclear power: a dual-use technology

At first, creating a highly contagious H5N1 virus may seem simply irresponsible and dangerous. However, studying this new virus could yield important information that save lives. Proponents of such research say that identifying high-transmissibility genetic alternations will allow scientists to spot similar mutations arising in other flu strains and therefore to prepare for or prevent a pandemic before if begins. Further analysis of the new H5N1 strain may also allow us to better understand the nature of this virus and its transmissibility.

One strong defender of such research is Peter Palese, a professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine who was himself the center of controversy in 2005 when he a led a team "resurrecting" the 1918 flu virus. This virus was responsible for a disastrous pandemic that killed 50 million people around the world. Despite initial concerns over the danger of this work, the results were published in full and Palese points out benefits such as learning which vaccines and drugs are effective against the virus. In a recent interview with Nature, he contended that "the more danger a pathogen poses, the more important it is to study it (under appropriate conditions), and to share the results with the scientific community." 

Who Gets To Know? 

Virologist Peter Palese argues
against "unacceptable censorship"
(image from

Most solutions to the dual-use dilemma involve systems that allow vetted parties to access key information while blocking unauthorized groups that might use the knowledge for malicious purposes. Palese calls any restriction on the H5N1 results "unacceptable censorship." However, most scientists and policy-makers are demanding at least some limits on who gets to know how the modified virus is made.

Of course this begs the question: who gets to know? The US government agency attempting to answer that question and determine how to proceed is the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). For now they are recommending witholding information that would allow replication of the experiments until a more careful final decision can be made. On the one hand, providing access only to scientists who have approved research plans can help prevent irresponsible or malicious use. On the other hand, this censorship directly opposes the free flow of ideas that is a fundamental driver of the scientific process, which in this case could result in life-saving discoveries. There is no easy answer in finding the balance between these two motives. 

Does It Matter? 

It is not unlikley that the NSABB will recommend restricting access to the H5N1 results. Whatever the NSABB decides, we have to ask one other important question: does it even matter? In the era of WikiLeaks and open-access activism, it is almost inconceivable that such information could be kept confidential indefinitely. Nevertheless, some attempts at censorship could at least provide a few months of lead time for important research to be done and for scientists and public health agencies to prepare. This is perhaps the best we can hope for.

The current debate over H5N1 is unprecedented, and the final outcome will guide dual-use research in biology for years to come. Interestingly, the immediacy of mass internet communication that could enable the leak of confidential H5N1 results is at the same time providing an unparalleled capacity for people to participate in a global discussion about how to handle dangerous science in the information age. The world is watching as the debate continues...

1 comment:

  1. Hi Robyn,

    I'm an editor at Popular Science, and was doing a little reading on dual-use research when I came across your post. You seem to have a pretty readable style, and we're always looking for new writers. Want to talk it over? I'm at jacob.ward at bonniercorp dot com.


    West Coast Bureau Chief