A key concern of allowing unlimited scientific research – however well-intentioned – is that the negative consequences might outweigh the good of their findings. The recent self-imposed moratorium by H5N1 influenza scientists reflect the crux of that concern.
No end to complications
IN DECEMBER boffins around the world were taken aback by an odd request. The American government called on the world’s two leading scientific publications to censor research. As we reported at the time, Nature (a British journal) and Science (an American one) were about to publish studies by two separate teams which had been tinkering with H5N1 influenza, better known as bird flu, to produce a strain that might be able to pass through the air between humans. The authorities fretted that were the precise methods and detailed genetic data to fall into the wrong hands, the consequences would be too awful to contemplate. They therefore suggested that only the broad conclusions be made public; the specifics could be sent to vetted scientists alone.
A furore duly erupted, fanned by fears of a pandemic that would make the “Spanish flu” of 1918, which may have claimed up to 100m lives, look like a mild case of the sniffles. On January 20th the teams’ leaders, Ron Fouchier of Rotterdam’s Erasmus Medical Centre and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, bowed to public pressure. In a joint statement published in Nature and Science and signed by 37 other leading flu experts, they announced a voluntary 60-day moratorium on all similar research. The aim of the self-imposed suspension, they explained, is to give organisations and governments time “to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work”.
For a start, that means figuring out a way to disseminate the sensitive nitty-gritty to the right researchers, a condition that Nature and Science said must be met if they are to redact the controversial papers. It also involves deciding how, if at all, future research should be carried out. These and other topics will be discussed at a summit, hopefully to be held in February under the auspices of the World Health Organisation in Geneva. The signatories are betting that this way they will prevent heavy-handed regulation from stifling their field.
Even before interested parties convene in Switzerland, though, fierce debate has already got under way. In the January 19th issue of Nature, ten experts, including Dr Fouchier,weigh in on the matter. Science launched a similar policy forum. One immediate conclusion is that flu researchers are deeply split among themselves. Some are frustrated by what they see as overblown misgivings by the National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), created in the wake of the Anthrax attacks of 2001 to advise America’s health department, which asked the two journals to withhold the latest research. Others praise the NSABB’s intervention as prescient.
One prominent critic, Peter Palese, of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, recalls his own work on the reconstruction of the Spanish-flu virus in 2005. At the time, the NSABB held its nerve, apparently concluding that the benefits of full disclosure outweigh the risks. Dr Palese points out in Nature that his success prompted many researchers to flood into the field. The resulting surge in papers revealed that the virus is vulnerable to existing seasonal flu vaccine and common flu drugs, allaying fears that mischief-makers would conjure it up and wreak havoc. Making it difficult to publish results would have discouraged new entrants and held back progress. Unhampered discussion of Dr Fouchier’s and Dr Kawaoka’s work would, he says, doubtless prove equally fruitful.
The two groups in Rotterdam and Madison have shown that viruses containing haemagglutinin, a protein which causes red blood cells to clump together, from H5N1 strains can be passed through the air between ferrets (as flu goes, ferrets and humans are very much alike). They also identified the genetic markers of the lethal strain. Such information is crucial if an effective vaccine and drugs are to be developed. And it enables health authorities to monitor outbreaks of bird flu for the dangerous mutations and so nip a potential pandemic in the bud. “The more danger a pathogen poses,” Dr Palese writes, “the more important it is to study it (under appropriate containment conditions), and to share the results with the scientific community.”
Others disagree. Michael Osterholm, of the University of Minnesota, and Donald Henderson, of the University of Pittsburgh, argue in Science that H5N1’s human fatality rate, a staggering 60% for the 570-odd recorded cases, means that any benefits flowing from the research are dwarfed by the risks. Although some research is warranted, they concede, there is no need to share the mutation data “outside of a small select group of established researchers already working within the WHO network”.
Such work, say many, should only be done in the most secure facilities: those rated “biosafety level 4”. Both Dr Fouchier’s and Dr Kawaoka’s labs are graded a notch lower, at “level 3, enhanced”, like the one where Dr Palese revived the 1918 virus. Others go further. In a spine-chilling editorial on January 7th, entitled “An Engineered Doomsday”, the New York Times implored scientists to destroy the deadly H5N1 strains in the name of safety.
The odds of that happening are long. In a statement sent to Science, the WHO says that research like Dr Fouchier’s and Dr Kawaoka’s is “an important tool for global surveillance efforts”. The organisation also reportedly worries that limiting access to relevant findings would be difficult to square with its recently updated pandemic influenza preparedness framework. That agreement, which stipulates that countries which provide virus samples should also receive the benefits of research, was preceded by four years of rancorous debate. If anything can be said for certain, then, it is that the gulf between those in favour of tighter controls and those against will be hard to bridge in two months.
The Economist (Original link here)