Can Censorship Stop Bioterrorism?

Open science is the best defense against a deadly avian flu attack.


In January, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended that the journals Nature and Science restrict publication of controversial new research relevant to the transmission of avian flu between humans. The fear: Would-be bioterrorists may be combing the pages of technical publications for tips on how to wreak havoc.

The H5N1 avian flu virus has killed 60 percent of the 600 or so people known to have come down with it since it was first identified in 1997. (By comparison, seasonal flu in the United States kills about 0.1 percent of those who catch it.) So far the H5N1 virus has not become easily transmissible between humans. But recently two research teams, one in the Netherlands and another in Wisconsin, reported that they had succeeded in transforming the virus into versions that can be passed through the air between mammals via respiratory droplets. In the normal course of scientific research, the teams approached Science and Nature about publishing their results. 

Reports of this research, however, provoked worries that publishing the recipe for transmitting the flu virus could enable bioterrorists to unleash a devastating global epidemic that might kill billions of people. Concerned journal editors and peer reviewers sought advice from the NSABB, a federally chartered committee of 25 outside experts that advises the government on possible public health threats posed by biological research. In December the NSABB recommended that the journals withhold the research details. 

In February, a panel of 22 prominent influenza researchers meeting under the auspices of the World Health Organization rejected the NSABB's recommendation. The panel agreed that publication should be delayed, but that both studies should be published in full within a few months. The voluntary two-month research moratorium for the two teams was extended pending a further biosafety review. 

Research moratoriums are not new to the life sciences. Back in 1974, several prominent biologists concerned about the "potential biohazards" posed by then-new gene-splicing techniques that had been described in leading scientific journals called for a time-out on certain kinds of experiments. A year later, a group of 140 scientists, along with a few lawyers and journalists, convened at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California, where they proposed a scheme for containing gene-spliced organisms in laboratories. This evolved into laboratory regulations under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. 

The NSABB cited the gene-splicing precedent in its avian flu recommendation, saying, "We believe that this is another Asilomar-type moment for public health and infectious- disease research that urgently needs our attention." That's about right, but not necessarily in a good way.

The positive spin on history is that the 1974 research moratorium and the 1975 Asilomar meeting calmed public fears and eventually enabled new biotech research to proceed. But some participants now disagree, arguing that the call for temporarily halting research instead inflamed the public. "I knew the [Asilomar] letter would give rise to a sort of fire-storm of ill-informed brave new world stuff," said Asilomar participant and former New York Times science reporter Victor McElheny in 2009.

In fact, The New York Times in 1976 helped fan the flames of "brave new world stuff" by publishing an article titled "New Strains of Life—Or Death," in which Cornell University biochemist Liebe Cavalieri warned that gene splicing could lead to accidental outbreaks of infectious cancer. "In the case of recombinant DNA," Cavalieri warned, "it is an all or none situation—only one accident is needed to endanger the future of mankind." Forty years after the first gene-splicing experiments by biologists Paul Berg, Herbert Boyer, and Stanley Cohen, unregulated molecular biology experiments are common in high school science classes, and humanity is not yet afflicted with lab-made super-cancers.

Governments, and especially defense bureaucracies, are addicted to secrecy. Knowledge is power, and government bureaucracies are in the business of accumulating and hoarding the stuff. This is the opposite of science, which thrives in an atmosphere of transparency. While on very rare occasions there may be reasons to temporarily withhold scientific findings from the public, the default should always be openness.

How plausible is it that bioterrorists or hostile governments are eager to brew up and release a pandemic strain of deadly flu? The would-be bioterrorists would have no way to prevent the material from infecting themselves, their families, friends, fellow citizens, and co-religionists. Thus your average terrorist and dictator are unlikely to conclude that a flu epidemic is a good idea. Bioterrorism using infectious agents is likely self-deterring. It's possible that unleashing a pandemic might appeal to some kind of millenarian death cult, but those aren't the type of people who typically have access to top-flight research methods. 

At the same time, there are clear benefits to the research. First, the new findings may give public health officials a jump start on what to look for as they monitor changes in natural avian flu strains. Second, these new air-transmissible versions could be used to assess the effectiveness of current anti-flu treatments, guiding the development of new treatments and vaccines.

Consider an earlier case of bioterrorism jitters provoked by research published in 2005 on how to resurrect the Spanish flu, a viral strain that killed around 50 million people in 1918. Some suggested that the 1918 flu was "perhaps the most effective bioweapons agent now known," prompting others to warn that the biosecurity risks of publishing the details of the virus' genome outweighed the scientific rewards. However, as a result of that published research we now have important new knowledge.

One of the lead researchers on the Spanish flu genome project, Peter Palese, recently pointed out in Nature that after publication of his paper several new researchers focused on the virus and happily discovered that it responds to seasonal vaccines and anti-flu drugs like Tamiflu and Symmetrel. "Had we not reconstructed the virus and shared our results with the community," Palese wrote, "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."

On January 25, one of the lead avian flu researchers, University of Wisconsin at Madison biologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, argued in Nature that the research on transmissible avian flu must continue. "The redaction of our manuscript, intended to contain risk, will make it harder for legitimate scientists to get this information while failing to provide a barrier to those who would do harm," Kawaoka said. 

Palese concurs. "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," he wrote. "Slowing down the scientific enterprise will not 'protect' the public—it only makes us more vulnerable." 

Both men are right. The best defense against bioterrorism is the open and international scientific enterprise itself, not government-recommended (and perhaps one day enforced) secrecy.

Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is the author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).