Bird Flu Research Censorship Is Not a Good Idea

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Don't fear the chicken reaper

Researchers in the Netherlands and in Wisconsin have created new strains of the H5N1 bird flu virus that for the first time can be transmitted through the air. Right now, a person has to spend some time in fairly close contact with birds, usually chickens or ducks, in order to acquire this virus. The bad news is that the virus has killed 60 percent of the nearly 600 people who have come down with it. In the last month, two men have died of the disease in China.

This research has provoked worries that publishing the recipe for making the bird flu virus airborne could enable bioterrorists to make it and thus result in a devastating global epidemic that could kill billions of people. The editorial page editors at the New York Times are so frightened at the prospect that they have called on the researchers to destroy their new strain of virus. 

Initially, the researchers had planned to publish their results in the leading scientific journals Science and Nature. Now they have agreed to a two-month moratorium [PDF] and the World Health Organization is convening a meeting of prominent influenza researchers to discuss what should be done. Science requires transparency and openness to operate. The question posed by this research is: Are there some truths that are so dangerous that they should be suppressed? 

In 2005, the scientific censorship issue with regard to influenza research was raised when researchers reported that they had decoded the genome of the Spanish flu virus that killed as many 100 million people in the early 20th century. Peter Palese, the lead researcher on the Spanish flu genome project, argues strongly against scientific censorship:

After we published our full paper in 2005 (T. M. Tumpey et alScience 310, 77–80; 2005), researchers poured into the field who probably would not otherwise have done, leading to hundreds of papers about the 1918 virus. As a result, we now know that the virus is sensitive to the seasonal flu vaccine, as well as to the common flu drugs amantadine (Symmetrel) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu). Had we not reconstructed the virus and shared our results with the community, we would still be in fear that a nefarious scientist would recreate the Spanish flu and release it on an unprotected world. We now know such a worst-case scenario is no longer possible.

Some have suggested that the details of new H5NI research be given only to vetted scientists. Palese explains why this is a bad idea: 

Giving the full details to vetted scientists is neither practical nor sufficient. Once 20–30 laboratories with postdoctoral fellows and students have such information available, it will be impossible to keep the details secret. Even more troublesome, however, is the question of who should decide which scientists are allowed to have the information. We need more people to study this potentially dangerous pathogen, but who will want to enter a field in which you can't publish your most scientifically interesting results?

Finally, Palese points out: 

Knowing which mutations render the virus more dangerous could help on a public-health level — if an outbreak of bird flu occurs in Taiwan, for instance, and researchers sequence the virus and see those mutations, we would know to ramp up the production of appropriate vaccines and antiviral drugs.

Incidentally, I believe that the risk of future outbreaks in humans is low: H5N1 has had the opportunity to cause widespread pandemics for many, many decades, yet it has not done so. Although we know the virus is transmissible between ferrets, little is known about how it will behave in other animals, including humans.

The more danger a pathogen poses, the more important it is to study it (under appropriate containment conditions), and to share the results with the scientific community. Slowing down the scientific enterprise will not 'protect' the public — it only makes us more vulnerable.

Back in 2005, in my column, Open Secrets of Biosecurity, I concluded:

…the real defense against bioterrorism is the open and international scientific enterprise itself. Just as advances in scientific knowledge have created the vaccines, antibiotics and antivirals that defend us against nature's immemorial bioterrorism, so will future advances protect us against man-made agents of disease. Scientific openness, not cloak-and-dagger secrecy, is our real bioterrorism defense.

Palese is correct when he argues that scientific secrecy would likely make us more vulnerable to both a natural outbreak or bioterrorism rather than safer from them. 

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  1. “Incidentally, I believe that the risk of future outbreaks in humans is low: H5N1 has had the opportunity to cause widespread pandemics for many, many decades, yet it has not done so.”
    _

    palese is incorrect given the previously reported transmission to humans in china…which the chinese have done their best to cover-up while destroying tens, if not hundreds of thousands of chickens.

    1. I believe he is referring to large-scale infections with human-to-human transmission, not isolated incidents.

      1. once the virus mutates in humans, the pandemic begins. >influenza remains one of the largest viral killers in the world year over year.

  2. Due to the alt-text, I know hear that song being done in chicken “BAWKS!!” in my head.

    Thanks Ron…

  3. “Palese is correct when he argues that scientific secrecy would likely make us more vulnerable to both a natural outbreak or bioterrorism rather than safer from them. ”

    Imagine a world where all scientific research is privately funded. What incentive would these private labs have to release their data to the world at large? The profit-maximizing solution would be to use the data to make products like Tamiflu, not to release it to the entire scientific community.

    1. And after a profit-maximizing firm makes an application for sale, do you think potential competitors won’t figure out what was done and jump on that line of research?

      “If we want great iPods and computers, we need to have the government fund research into those gadgets and forty years later come up with a 5% improvement on what’s out there right now!”

      1. The article claims that what you’re advocating “would likely make us more vulnerable to both a natural outbreak or bioterrorism rather than safer from them. “

    2. TD: It must be a deep puzzle to you that science advanced at all before government funding became popular after WWII.

      1. I am able to make distinctions between zero progress, slow progress, and maximum progress — so no.

        And there was plenty of government tech funding before and during WW2 as well.

        1. Cool story, bro.

  4. “Imagine a world where all scientific research is privately funded. What incentive would these private labs have to release their data to the world at large?”

    If it’s a donation-based model rather than a profit-based model (both count as “private”), then publishing data helps make the case for securing more funding.

  5. I like how they’re pretending that bioterrorism hasn’t been been easily accessible to the masses for like 7 years. Authority figures losing perspective, film at 11.

  6. I’m sympathetic to the argument, but I don’t follow the analogy.

    The Spanish Flu was naturally occuring, which means it could naturally occur again, making it important to devote research to it.

    That seems completely different from taking an existing pathogen and engineering it to be far, far worse than it is in real life, and then using that as a justification to study it.

    1. Gojira: One aspect of the research is to find out what mutations will transform the naturally occurring virus into the kind that more easily infects people. Identifying such mutations in the lab may enable public health authorities to more quickly identify similar mutations in natural viruses, so that they can eliminate populations of chickens, ducks, etc. that carry the newly mutated viruses before they dangerously mutate further.

      1. Ron, haven’t you seen X-Men? Discriminating against mutants and trying to wipe them out is wrong!

  7. TD: You forget that the patent system is another disclosure mechanism that aims to prevent us from living in a world of trade secrets. Patents encourage researchers to telling the rest of us what they did for a limited license to profit from their discoveries and inventions.

    1. when it comes to vaccines, patent law flies out the window. in the middle of a flu crisis, I can’t imagine governments patiently waiting for the patented vaccine to be ramped up by the corporation in question.

      However, most times vaccines are released in crisis and I’m sure governments would settle with the company after the crisis was averted.

      I really don’t know alot about the drivers in vaccination type patents.

    2. You can patent something that has a physical makeup, like a vaccine.

      You can’t patent things like evolutionary theory or quantum physics. So patents are only a partial solution to the problem.

      And who is administrating this program. Are you comfortable with the government administrating those patents? Or is there some private patent system I’m unfamiliar with?

  8. I say bring it on. I’m not afraid of the H5N1 or any flu virus. In 38 year, I’ve never contracted the flu thanks to the power of Kimchi (of course kimchi also has the power to make your breath smell so bad that you’ll never get laid again).

    1. It is hard to get sick if people give you a wiiiiiide berth.

      That being said, good kimchi is tasty grinds!

      1. That is true and if you’re ever near me when I’m scarfing down a bucket of kimchi, you will regret it. But the link I posted earlier mentions a study done by Seoul National University which claims that chickens infected with H5N1 recovered after eating food containing the same probiotic bacteria found in kimchi.

  9. Anyone else see Contagion? Watched it this weekend and it seemed realistic (read: boring as all hell).

    1. I watched it yesterday. Well done and probably pretty realistic.

      I think the least realistic aspect of the virus in the movie was that it killed so quickly (a day or two) that it probably wouldn’t spread very easily. The viruses that really pose a pandemic risk are the ones that incubate for a week or so, making the carrier contagious before incapacitating them.

      And the first carrier was a traveler from Hong Kong, even though in real life you can’t even get on a plane in Hong Kong without walking through a detector that screens your temperature.

  10. Why do I get the sinking feeling that someday this argument will end with someone admitting it was foolish to underestimate the danger, and “sorry” will be all that’s offered in return.

    1. b: Which danger are you underestimating? Secrecy impeding the development of treatments in advance or openness enabling bioterrorism. It’s trade-offs all the time.

      1. I would say the danger of creating the virus in the first place.

        You said above:

        “Identifying such mutations in the lab may enable public health authorities to more quickly identify similar mutations in natural viruses”

        “May” is exceedingly vague. How likely? How useful is this line of research?

        1. m: The vague “may” is why the research needs to be done – make it less vague just as they did with the Spanish flu virus.

      2. I think we will find that due to the relative ease and accessibility of causing a biological atrocity, that the recipe getting out will eventually allow some asshole to win the race, I think it naive and wishful to expect that the good guys will always find a countermeasure for whatever comes up and that they will find it in time.

        The eventual result will be millions dead, but I don’t think the secrets can be kept for long anyway. Openness is the modern default condition. Secrecy will part of the good ol days we remember from before the apocalypse.

      3. I’m not worried about bio-terrorism in the least. I’m worried that some idiot is going to let this accidently escape the lab. I don’t see any justification for intentionally creating an airborne version of this virus, however small the risk of an escape may be. In the same way that people buy lottery tickets, the probability is very small, but eventually someone wins.

  11. Well maybe nature will obviate all of this (and 60% of us) soon enough. China has had two cases of avian flu this month (both fatal) for which no avian to human transmission can be established. So maybe Momma N will take care of it all by herself.

  12. See, thats exactly what I am talking about dude.QBStimPL4

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