Dear Science and Nature: Please Keep Your Germs (and Your Knowledge) to Yourselves

 

It seems that Dutch and American scientists have discovered a way to create a variant on the A(H5N1) virus that’s easy to transmit. That would be the bird flu virus, which in its natural form is lethal, but at least very difficult to transmit.

The National Science Board for Biosecurity has asked Science and Nature if they’d be so kind as to keep the details of this magic formula out of the public realm. They stress that they’re not trying to censor anyone, they’re just asking for a bit of cooperation, seeing as this bug could, you know, wipe out all of humanity:

Scientists and journal editors are generally adamant about protecting the free flow of ideas and information, and ready to fight anything that hints at censorship.

“I wouldn’t call this censorship,” [Editor of Science] Dr. Alberts said. “This is trying to avoid inappropriate censorship. It’s the scientific community trying to step out front and be responsible.”

He said there was legitimate cause for the concern about the researchers’ techniques falling into the wrong hands.

“This finding shows it’s much easier to evolve this virus to an extremely dangerous state where it can be transmitted in aerosols than anybody had recognized,” he said. Transmission by aerosols means the virus can be spread through the air via coughing or sneezing.

Ever since the tightening of security after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, scientists have worried that a scientific development would pit the need for safety against the need to share information. Now, it seems, that day has come.

“It’s a precedent-setting moment, and we need to be careful about the precedent we set,” Dr. Alberts said.

I’m against censorship, but I’d like to take this opportunity equally politely to agree with the National Science Board for Biosecurity and remind these journals that if they publish this information we’re all going to die, so it’s probably not a good idea to do it. In fact, I’d have preferred they not tell the entire freaking world that it’s super-easy to do in the first place.

Also, to the scientists in question: Please remember to wash your hands before you leave the lab and touch the buttons on the elevator. This is no time to get sloppy. 

There are 19 comments.

  1. Pilli Inactive

    A couple of assumptions and a question:

    Assume: The “journalists” publish this information.

    Assume: Someone uses the information to create a bio-weapon and uses it harming at least one person.

    Question: How much responsibility accrues to the “journalists” as part of this act?

    Mr. Epstein? Mr. Yoo?

    • #1
    • December 21, 2011, at 7:51 AM PDT
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  2. Ed G. Member

    I read the linked article. I have zero knowledge of microbiology, but I couldn’t help but think: learning how a deadly virus works and developing treatments is one thing, making said deadly virus more easily-transmitted is quite another. Isn’t there a way to research one without the other? Also, the intent of the study – “to find out what genetic changes might make the virus easier to transmit. That way, scientists would know how to identify changes in the naturally occurring virus that might be warning signals that it was developing pandemic potential.” – sounds like hubris to me; do they really think that they could identify pandemic potential and do something about it before the death count makes it apparent?

    • #2
    • December 21, 2011, at 8:03 AM PDT
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  3. das_motorhead Inactive

    Alberts is an extremely good scientist and, from all I’ve seen of him, an extremely reasonable man. He sees science as a tool for the common good and has structured his work around not only doing great science but also working to improve the communication of science to the public. Considering that witholding information in this case fits into the category of public good, I think he’ll be pretty reasonable. As to the folks at Nature…I have no idea. Because the editors and editorial boards are scientists and not journalists, I think they’re probably more willing to handle this appropriately, whereas it seems to me a journalist with the info would be too focused on getting the scoop to care about national security (see “TSP, revelations of” and “SWIFT, outing by NYT”).

    Final point, the only thing they are being asked to withhold a few key details in the methods, the data won’t be compromised. So, it’s more a minor sin of omission than a much bigger sin of obscuring data or even refusing publication completely.

    I guess all of this is hand waving on my part until Alberts actually makes a decision, though.

    • #3
    • December 21, 2011, at 8:13 AM PDT
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  4. Valiuth Member

    Well to answer Mr. Ed G. I think to study the viruses infectious nature you have to start messing around with said nature. So the way biological experimentation works is generally through mutation and comparison of mutant to original. So biologists change parts of the viruses DNA and then try to observe changes in phenotype. This is used to then infer the function of the genes they mutated.

    I think it is within the realm of possibility that we could identify features that could indicate strong infectiousness. I don’t think they believe they can really preempt disease since we never really have a complete survey of all current diseases, but it could serve as a useful screening tool. Thus we could identify viruses that we think have more infectious potential and focus on them first to minimize their risk.

    • #4
    • December 21, 2011, at 8:14 AM PDT
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  5. Stu In Tokyo Inactive

    So we can’t take a normal bottle of coke on an airplane with us, and the powers the be cite national security etc, but these guys make deadly germ warfare in their unsecured labs and when asked to not “TALK” bout it, they scream censorship? I would rather some guys from a government agency with an unheard of name came knocking at the lab door and filled the place with molten glass……

    • #5
    • December 21, 2011, at 8:16 AM PDT
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  6. Goldgeller Member

    I guess that my problem with the article that the NYTimes wrote is that it sets the whole battle up as a battle against “censorship vs freedom.” As though the potential dangers of the research are not relevant.

    It sounds to me like something out of a sci-fi book really.

    • #6
    • December 21, 2011, at 8:25 AM PDT
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  7. das_motorhead Inactive
    Ed G.: Isn’t there a way to research one without the other?

    Yes and no. The problem with bacteria and viruses is that key traits like transmissibility and pathogenicity can be tough to separate. Not saying it can’t be done, but it’s not always as simple as that. These things mutate at pretty high rates, so changes are constantly occurring, and that can affect both characteristics.

    Also, the intent of the study sounds like hubris to me; do they really think that they could identify pandemic potential and do something about it before the death count makes it apparent?

    This research may not accomplish the stated goal, but that’s not to say it’s hubris. Comparing the characteristics of a highly transmissible virus against one that isn’t transmitted, and then watching or inducing changes that take one to the other, will give insight into how the virus acts in nature. So, if a virus with moderate potential for transmissibility is isolated and is found to be closely related to a previously known non-transmissible form, scientists will be better able to recognize the path that virus is on and perhaps do something about it.

    • #7
    • December 21, 2011, at 8:26 AM PDT
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  8. das_motorhead Inactive
    Stu In Tokyo: So we can’t take a normal bottle of coke on an airplane with us, and the powers the be cite national security etc, but these guys make deadly germ warfare in their unsecured labs and when asked to not “TALK” bout it, they scream censorship? I would rather some guys from a government agency with an unheard of name came knocking at the lab door and filled the place with molten glass…… · Dec 21 at 7:16am

    I don’t see anyone screaming censorship. The people quoted are raising valid concerns about what happens when you start withholding information, and why that can be difficult (especially after some of the data has already been presented). No one is saying the request isn’t reasonable, just that it has to be implemented properly.

    • #8
    • December 21, 2011, at 8:30 AM PDT
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  9. Gaby Charing Inactive

    In the UK this research would have to be licensed. We had a disaster with smallpox. One last sample was kept under tightest security in a lab in Birmingham. They got it out for research. A lab assistant died. The sample was destroyed. No smallpox here. But for a couple of years we couldn’t fly without a vaccination certificate.

    I know this is not quite germane to the issue of publication, but it’s all part of the same thing – responsibility in science.

    • #9
    • December 21, 2011, at 8:34 AM PDT
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  10. Ed G. Member
    das_motorhead

    …..

    This research may not accomplish the stated goal, but that’s not to say it’s hubris. Comparing the characteristics of a highly transmissible virus against one that isn’t transmitted, and then watching or inducing changes that take one to the other, will give insight into how the virus acts in nature. So, if a virus with moderate potential for transmissibility is isolated and is found to be closely related to a previously known non-transmissible form, scientists will be better able to recognize the path that virus is on and perhaps do something about it.

    I understand why it’s valuable to study viruses. I don’t understand why it’s necessary to take a virus that is hard to transmit and intentionally make it highly transmittable just so we can figure out how to react when the highly transmittable virus becomes a problem. Aren’t there already viruses with naturally occurring differences in transmissibility? My problem with the stated objective is that the intentional result is a more dangerous world whereas an objective to understand how a virus acts in nature doesn’t require engineering a super deadly bug that didn’t previously exist.

    • #10
    • December 21, 2011, at 8:52 AM PDT
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  11. Nyadnar17 Inactive
    I need them to focus their attention on Swine Flu instead. That said this information needs to be out there. As any cryptology expert will tell you if, if your first line of defense is the secrecy of your algorithm you are already doomed. There is an easy way to weaponized the Bird Flu, these guys found it and someone else will to. No sense in pretending it didn’t happen, simply knowing its possible has already let the Gennie out of the bottle.
    • #11
    • December 21, 2011, at 8:56 AM PDT
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  12. das_motorhead Inactive
    Ed G. Aren’t there already viruses with naturally occurring differences in transmissibility? My problem with the stated objective is that the intentional result is a more dangerous world whereas an objective to understand how a virus acts in nature doesn’t require engineering a super deadly bug that didn’t previously exist. · Dec 21 at 7:52am

    It’s a fair point, and I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss hubris on the part of the researchers. However, there are valid reasons why mutating H5N1 could be necessary. Because of the diversity among viruses, traits inherent to some highly transmissible but not deadly virus may not be useful for understanding aspects of H5N1. The mutations needed to get H5N1 into humans may be different than those seen in other human-infecting viruses. The mechanism used by H5N1 to interact with host cells could be different. It comes down to immense variability, which makes generalizing across multiple subtypes tough.

    The Scientific American article linked by the NYT pieces is pretty interesting, and gives some more background

    • #12
    • December 21, 2011, at 9:36 AM PDT
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  13. Tommy De Seno Contributor
    Pilli: A couple of assumptions and a question:

    Assume: The “journalists” publish this information.

    Assume: Someone uses the information to create a bio-weapon and uses it harming at least one person.

    Question: How much responsibility accrues to the “journalists” as part of this act?

    Mr. Epstein? Mr. Yoo? · Dec 21 at 6:51am

    It would be a novel theory of negligence in the civil court and a novel theory of accomplice liability in the criminal court.

    Novel or not, that doesn’t mean some aggressive tort lawyer or prosecutor wouldn’t try.

    Outside of defamation and intrusion of privacy I’m not familiar with any tort claims against journalists for what they print. But I’m also not familiar with a newspaper printing the blueprint to a doomsday machine.

    In criminal law accomplice liability would turn on an intent to have the crime committed – a standard likely to be unobtained in a criminal trial against a journalist.

    (It ain’t Epstein or Yoo, but at least it’s an opinion from the trenches since I do try cases).

    Hope it helps.

    • #13
    • December 21, 2011, at 9:44 AM PDT
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  14. DocJay Inactive

    Weaponized viruses are a very real danger. The very article’s existence bothers me.

    “Oh look Chumley, I’ve made a neutron bomb out of cracker jacks. I’ll post how on you tube” Good God.

    • #14
    • December 21, 2011, at 10:40 AM PDT
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  15. Mendel Member
    Ed G.: I read the linked article. I have zero knowledge of microbiology, but I couldn’t help but think: learning how a deadly virus works and developing treatments is one thing, making said deadly virus more easily-transmitted is quite another. Isn’t there a way to research one without the other?

    One of the most important reasons for doing these studies is to determine if it is at all possible for H5N1 to be transmitted from human-to-human. If it is theoretically possible, that changes how we monitor and deal with H5N1 outbreaks in birds close to populated areas.

    There is also somewhat less hubris involved than may appear: in at least one of the two groups, the scientists did not deliberately mutate the virus, but rather the virus mutated by itself during animal experiments.

    • #15
    • December 22, 2011, at 4:26 AM PDT
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  16. Mendel Member
    Gaby Charing: In the UK this research would have to be licensed. We had a disaster with smallpox. One last sample was kept under tightest security in a lab in Birmingham. They got it out for research. A lab assistant died. The sample was destroyed. No smallpox here. But for a couple of years we couldn’t fly without a vaccination certificate.

    I know this is not quite germane to the issue of publication, but it’s all part of the same thing – responsibility in science. · Dec 21 at 7:34am

    The research was licensed. Both of these labs are regularly inspected for safety by their respective countries’ authorities, and experiments of this nature are cleared with public health authorities beforehand.

    • #16
    • December 22, 2011, at 4:30 AM PDT
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  17. Garrett Petersen Inactive

    These scientists remind me of professor Farnsworth from Futurama:

    “Everybody’s always in favor of saving Hitler’s brain. But when you put it in the body of a great white shark – uuuh, suddenly you’ve gone too far.”

    • #17
    • December 22, 2011, at 8:51 AM PDT
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  18. AlbertusW Inactive

    The value of the research may be to demonstrate that if ten passages through ferrets can select an infectious variant, we have a point-estimate (i.e. a good first guess) of how quickly this variant might arise in natural populations.

    I’d like to see the publication, because if ten passages suffice, I would have expected an airborne infectious variant to have arisen already. I wouldn’t really care to see the molecular details of the changes, because according to the public accounts, the experiment was selection, not engineering. Nature is still smarter, so far, than bioengineers in making pathogens. If the research is published, I’d look for the author’s speculations on why this variant hasn’t appeared. Publication might relieve anxiety.

    • #18
    • December 24, 2011, at 12:21 PM PDT
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  19. AlbertusW Inactive

    Hear this issue discussed by virology podcasters at http://traffic.libsyn.com/twiv/TWiV159.mp3. Summary: the work could have scientific merit, and the publicity is overblown and sensationalized.

    • #19
    • January 10, 2012, at 4:41 AM PDT
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