Too late to contain killer flu science, say experts
US government's hopes of suppressing details of controversial research may be doomed, say scientists
Attempts to suppress details of the controversial experiments that have created a highly infectious form of bird flu virus are likely to fail, according to scientists familiar with the research.
The US government has asked two scientific journals to refrain from publishing key parts of research on the H5N1 strain of bird flu to prevent the information falling into the hands of terrorists intent on recreating the same flu strain for use as a bioweapon.
However, scientists said the plea comes too late because the information has already been shared widely among flu researchers. Others argue that the move could obstruct attempts to find new vaccines and drugs to combat an infectious form of human H5N1 if it appeared naturally. Professor Richard Ebright, a virologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said the research, which was funded by the US government, should never have been done without first assessing how to control the release of scientific information. "The work should have been reviewed at the national or international level before being performed, and should have been restricted at a national or international level before being performed," he said.
Two teams of researchers, one led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam and the other by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have submitted manuscripts on bird flu virus to the journals Nature and Science. In them, they describe how they deliberately mutated the H5N1 strain of bird flu into an "airborne" strain that can be transmitted in coughs and sneezes between laboratory ferrets, the best animal "model" of human flu.
Professor Paul Keim, chairman of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which has advised against publication of key details of the research, said although the request sets a precedent in the biological sciences, it is common in other areas of science where there is potential for dual use of research in both civil and military applications.
"They [the US government] have requested that the journals and scientists refrain from publishing the full details of their work," said Professor Keim. "If the data and methods are restricted by the authors and journals, it is a voluntary action on their part."
But Dr Fouchier said that although his institute will abide by the voluntary restrictions on publication, it will be almost impossible to guarantee the confidentiality of the information, given that the scientific data has already been shared with hundreds of researchers and governments in open meetings. Flu scientists in Britain, meanwhile, say it is doubtful the details of the two experiments can be kept secret. "The exact mutations that made this transformation possible were not particularly novel or unexpected," said Wendy Barclay, professor of influenza virology at Imperial College London.
"I'm very wary that information should be withheld from the scientific literature because... if we don't know what the mutations are that make the virus more transmissible, we won't know what to look out for when we monitor the spread of new flu viruses."
Professor John Oxford, a flu expert at London's Queen Mary University, said the study "reminds us of how wafer thin the barrier is between a benign H5N1 virus and one that could spread easily".
Dangerous science: Discoveries for good – and bad
The splitting of the atom and the science of sub-atomic physics led to the development of nuclear power and advances in nuclear medicine, such as MRI scanners. It also helped the advance of nuclear weapons based on nuclear fission (A-bombs) and thermonuclear fusion (H-bombs).
The development of rockets in the 1950s led to man's first landing on the moon. Since then rockets have placed countless civilian satellites in orbit, as well as powering space probes. But rockets are also the key delivery system for intercontinental ballistic missiles that carry nuclear warheads.
Many areas of neuroscience have potential dual-use capabilities. For example, drugs that induce semi-conscious states may have legitimate medical uses, but they could also be used as incapacitating agents in military applications, to induce panic, pain, depression or delirium.
Advances in DNA technology and genetic engineering, which have allowed scientists to reconstruct the genomes of simple organisms, have produced many benefits, from new vaccines to pest-resistant crops. But molecular biology could also be used to produce "weaponised" viruses and microbes that could kill large numbers of people.