Recent research around avian influenza H5N1, commonly known as “bird flu,” has stirred up a great deal of controversy. Debate has centered on the publication of dual-use research, a term describing studies that have a potential public health benefit but could also be used for biowarfare or terrorism.
The study in question was conducted by Dr. Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. Fouchier set out to examine the transmissibility of the bird flu virus. Previously reported cases of bird flu in humans have arisen from direct contact with an infected bird, but Fouchier wondered if bird flu could mutate in such a way that it could easily spread from human to human.
Bird flu can be characterized as high pathogenicity or low pathogenicity (“pathogenicity” referring to an organism’s ability to cause disease). While low path bird flu is generally not considered a threat to human health, high path bird flu has infected several hundred people around the world. The virus is currently considered endemic in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Public health officials pay special attention to bird flu because of its high case-fatality rate (the number of infected people who die from a given disease). It is estimated that bird flu kills six out of 10 people who contract it, for a total of at least 550 deaths since it was first recorded in 2003.
The Experiment: Transmitting Flu from Ferret to Ferret
To investigate the potential for bird flu spread among humans, Fouchier turned to ferrets, an animal with a respiratory tract similar to humans and thus often used in flu research. The research team started in the lab, using reverse genetic tactics to give the virus the ability to attach to the cells lining the nose and throat. When ferrets were exposed to this strain, they became sick but the virus did not readily spread to other ferrets.
The researchers next experimented with the transmission of the virus by infecting a ferret with H5N1, taking infected material from the animal’s nose, and inserting it into the nose of a healthy ferret. This ferret also came down with the flu, and provided material to infect another healthy animal. The process was repeated 10 times before the virus mutated enough to be capable of airborne transmission. The end result of the experiment was a strain of bird flu that was transmissible from ferret-to-ferret through regular close contact.
Are Results Too Dangerous to Share?
Fouchier presented his research in September at the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza conference in Malta and is now looking to publish in an academic journal. Experts in the biosecurity field believe the research should not be published as it could provide instructions to create powerful new bioweapons.
Other influenza researchers are crying censorship at the idea of preventing publication. Biology is a field built on openness and the sharing of results so that others can learn, replicate experiments, and make further discoveries. Knowledge of the mutations in the ferret experiment may provide markers for biologists to look for in the field. Vaccines and drugs can be tested for effectiveness against these mutated strains, which could help prepare against future pandemic threats.
Furthermore, the mutations in Fouchier’s experiment have already been documented in the field, where they occurred naturally; the specific set of mutations had not yet been seen together. This begs the question if Fouchier’s research was really that dangerous, or perhaps a strain that would appear naturally, with time.
Biosecurity experts counter that a virus with such a clear pandemic threat is far too risky for laboratory research such as Fouchier’s. While it is too late to prevent the experiments, proceeding with publication would be unnecessarily dangerous. A rogue scientist or bioterrorist with access to the published study may essentially have a recipe for a dangerous bioweapon.
The paper is currently under review by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a division of the Office of Biotechnology Activities at the NIH’s Office of Science Policy. The NSABB was created to advise United States agencies on how to reduce the risk that research will be misused. While the NSABB cannot forcibly prevent publication, it can make recommendations for edits or request a journal not to publish.
While the NSABB can provide some guidance on publication and use of dual-use research, some scientists and security experts think that dual-use studies should be subject to a mandatory review of global risk by a panel of experts during the proposal phase, before setting foot in a lab. One such system was proposed by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, but no formal governing body currently exists. Without a mechanism to review controversial and potentially dangerous research, these debates will continue to appear in the scientific community.
For now, the NSABB must weigh if there is more potential public health benefit than risk in publishing the methods and results of the research. The board is expected to release a recommendation concerning publication in the near future.
HealthMap and the Disease Daily regularly report on bird flu news and outbreaks, including posts about recent human deaths in Indonesia and a helpful Q&A on avian influenza.