The A(H5N1) Conundrum | January 9, 2012 Issue - Vol. 90 Issue 2 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 2 | p. 3 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: January 9, 2012

The A(H5N1) Conundrum

Department: Editor's Page
News Channels: Biological SCENE
Keywords: H5N1[A(H5N1)], bioterrorist, A(H5N1), National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity

Are there some experiments that should never be carried out? Is there some knowledge that is too dangerous for humans to possess? Can the dissemination of knowledge, once it has been discovered, be limited to only a few people?

These are some of the questions being raised by two papers from two virology groups that created an avian H5N1[A(H5N1)] influenza virus that is easily transmissible from mammal to mammal through the air. A federal advisory board has taken the unprecedented step of asking the journals Science and Nature not to publish details of the work to prevent them from becoming known to would-be bioterrorists (C&EN, Jan. 2, page 9).

A(H5N1) doesn’t usually infect humans. Of the 600 or so humans who have contracted the virus in the past decade, apparently directly from infected birds, about 60% died, a rate frighteningly higher than the estimated 2% who died after contracting the Spanish flu in the devastating 1918 epidemic that killed 20 million people worldwide. The saving grace of A(H5N1), so far, is that it does not pass from human to human through the air.

The work under review, done at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, by Yoshihiro Kawaoka and coworkers and at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, by Ron Fouchier and coworkers, was designed to find out whether A(H5N1) could evolve the ability to spread between mammals through the air. Fouchier presented some details of the work at a conference in Europe in September 2011. From sketchy press reports it appears that infecting one ferret—the mammal model of choice for studying flu virus transmissibility among humans—with A(H5N1) and then taking virus from the infected ferret and infecting another eventually led to an A(H5N1) that could be transmitted from one ferret to another in an adjacent cage through the air. It’s been reported that a total of five mutations in the viral genome led to the air-transmissible A(H5N1).

Some experts have now been quoted in press reports arguing that the research should never have been carried out in the first place, that creation of the transmissible A(H5N1) was irresponsible. That’s an untenable position. If there is a set of mutations that will make A(H5N1) transmissible among humans, then that set of mutations will one day occur in the wild. Better to know what those mutations are and be on the lookout for them in wild strains than to become aware of them once a pandemic has broken out. And if this is a virus we will someday face, it would be a good idea to begin to study its weaknesses.

More complicated is the question of who should have access to the details of the work. After the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) requested that details regarding the scientific methodology and specific viral mutations be deleted from the papers before they were published, Bruce M. Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, put out a statement that said, in part, that the transmissible A(H5N1) “is sensitive to antivirals and to certain vaccine candidates and knowledge about it could well be essential for speeding the developments of new treatments to combat this lethal form of influenza.” He continued that, while supporting the work of NSABB, “Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers” and that the journal’s final decision would be heavily dependent on the U.S. government setting out a plan for making the information available to such scientists.

How one goes about that isn’t at all clear. And if 100 or 1,000 researchers are given access to the information, will it really be any more secure than if it were simply published?

The idea of a terrorist trying to turn A(H5N1) into a weapon is scary. What’s more scary is the certainty that someday, somewhere, an air-transmissible A(H5N1) is going to emerge in the wild. When it does, we’d better be ready. Being ready means as many researchers as possible should be working on the problem. That argues for rapid publication of the complete research.

Thanks for reading.

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Copyright © American Chemical Society
Chris (January 13, 2012 2:27 AM)
Just for a few bases, really?
In his last paragraph about H5N1, I read that the possible spontaneous appearance of an air-transmissible H5N1 virus is scarier than a terrorist trying to weaponize it. Really? I thought a terrorist is someone who tries to kill as many people as possible. Which would make viruses even more evil-minded than that, and then, terrorists not so scary after all. I had no idea. Should I ever see, God forbid, anyone in my family or among my friends die of such a virus -engineered by a terrorist helped by the papers I supported the publication of-, it will sure soothe me to think that it would have been even worse, had the virus appeared spontaneously. Science is above it all. Right?

I understand -and actually side with- the thought that censure is bad for science. But is that really news? What about –now common- industrial/trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements, clinical trial proprietary results, highly sensitive atomic physics methodologies, etc? Secrecy in scientific matters happens everywhere/all the time. I think that we put our dignified indignation to general use… or to rest.

Everyday, people send papers to Nature and Science, after years of hard labor, just to hear that their work cannot be published, because it is not good enough. If I not mistaking, here, the results are that with a selected set of mutations, a deadly-though-barely-contagious virus can be made into a deadly-and-contagious one. Impressive. Even Mr Baum agrees with it: it might well happen all by itself, in the wild. In other words: big deal!

Well first, seemingly it has not happened yet, so what is the scope of it, really? Second, seemingly the existing drugs would still be active against the new virus, so we are safe. What about now sadly common drug shortages? Third, drugs take 10+ years to get to market, while mutations take much less to appear. Where is the proof that the yet-to-appear-in-the-wild-mutants will still be sensitive to these drugs too?

In the end, on the contrary, I do think that these experiments should never have been done in the first place. I also think that Science and Nature should have alerted who ever appropriate about what these people where doing, so to stop them. As the saying goes said: “Science without conscience will only ruin our soul”. And potentially mankind. Just for a few bases, really..?

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