In the prevalent negotiation between scientific research, moral concerns and government, an all-new controversy has emerged with the findings of two recent studies, with regards to a specific mutation of the H5N1 influenza virus.
Ron Fouchier and his team, affiliated with the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, have successful created “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make,” a specific mutation of the H5N1 virus.
A similar study conducted by Yoshihiro Kawaoka and his research team at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Tokyo has yielded similar results.
Similar to all strains of influenza, the H5N1 has a nature that is in constant evolution. The H5N1 Avian influenza, which was deadly on its own, has been reported to be the cause of death of 59% of the 571 people it has affected over the past 8 years. Despite these numbers, this strain supposedly “rarely infects humans, and does not spread easily from person to person.”
The fact that H5N1 is a virus originating from non-humans is what makes it deadly for infected humans. The human immune system is unable to fight the alien virus, proving fatal for the infected individual.
A rightful fear of the avian flu and its potential for mass human destruction was demonstrated in Hong Kong in 1997, when the government attempted to prevent the virus from establishing in humans by slaughtering all the country’s chickens.
Note, though, that the avian flu was not transmittable from human to human, a factor that kept infection rates from skyrocketing.
Now, researchers have demonstrated that certain mutations in the H5N1’s genome can make the virus more easily transmissible to humans, as it is aerially transmissible, unlike the avian flu.
Fouchier’s team studied the transmission of the mutated virus among ferrets, and results showed that a sick ferret will infect a healthy one without physical contact. Past studies have shown that any influenza strain that is transmissible between ferrets is similarly so between humans, and vice versa.
In the past, scientists have challenged notions regarding the H5N1 virus’ potential to trigger a flu pandemic, postulating that adapting to a human host would make the virus unable to reproduce. Some have also argued that while flu pandemics may be caused by H1, H2 and H3 viruses, but not by H5. However, Fouchier’s study disproves all these postulations.
Put simply, if the H5N1 virus was a deadly concern before, the newly mutated strain now holds the potential to infect and eradicate vastly larger proportions of the global population.
Publication and Replication
As Fouchier and Kawaoka attempt to publish the complete data and procedure of their respective studies, the ensuing controversy has become more than a safety concern—it is an ethical and moral dilemma that directly affects the safety and wellbeing of the entire global population.
Publishing the complete data in a widely circulated scientific journal would allow for uninhibited access to the exact procedure for the creation of the mutated strain, a common protocol necessary for scientific replication, which is a peer review system through which studies and their efficacy is proven and efficiency is maintained in the scientific community.
Due to the destructive potential of replicating a study that works with this highly infectious and transmissible virus, US authorities have asked the authors of the studies to refrain from publishing key details of the data after a government advisory panel, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), concluded that the study could be used by bio-terrorists for mass warfare and human damage.
In response to this, editors of the two acclaimed scientific journals Nature and Science have asked the US government for a clear plan of use of the withheld data by those “responsible scientists who request it.” Thus, the matter has become one of censorship and of withholding information that is vital for subsequent scientific research.
The US government issued a press statement, stating its recognition of the study’s importance. The document outlines the government’s intentions to establish a screening mechanism to control data release to only those scientists with a “legitimate need, in order to achieve important public health goals.”
This controversy has also led to a debate regarding the existing system that sanctions and funds scientific studies. The emergence of Fouchier and Kawaoka’s studies demonstrates a current lack of regulation of research with such a potential for destructive misuse. In response to this, the US government is now developing a proposed oversight policy to fine-tune existing approaches to evaluating research.
The motivation for replication of the study is not only to corroborate it, as with all published studies, but also to provide valuable information to the influenza community for further research into diagnostics and medicine. There is also an opportunity to determine whether the H5N1 strain is able to acquire genetic characteristics of a pandemic strain, in order to subsequently identify the same. Circulating strains of H5N1 could then be screened for these characteristics as a preventative measure against spread of the virus.
Proponents of the study also argue that the research potential of accessible data presents the opportunity to test the efficacy of existing vaccines in fighting the virus, alongside innovation in the creation of more efficient vaccines.
Yet the risks associated with replication are diverse. Replication of such a highly infectious virus carries enormous risks of researcher infection, making it vital that replication studies be carried out only in high containment labs, by responsible and reputable scientists.
Further, the chances of the virus escaping the lab are difficult to eradicate completely, although they may be minimized by the government’s screening protocol.
Arguably, the virus that parallels the H5N1 mutation in its infectious and destructive potential is the smallpox virus, which terrorized and shrunk the world population for centuries.
Smallpox was responsible for the deaths of approximately 400 000 Europeans per year at the close of the 18th century, and another estimated 300-500 million during the 20th century. It is transmitted through inhalation of the airborne variola virus, a factor that led to vast rates of infection.
After the very last two cases of smallpox in 1978, all known stocks of the virus were destroyed or transferred to WHO laboratories. Although the organization recommended destruction of the virus, resistance led to stocks being retained for specific research purposes such as the development of new vaccines, antiviral drugs and diagnostic tests.
Finding a parallel with the case of the smallpox raises further questions: Could the H5N1 virus be similarly isolated and destroyed? If the two studies were to be published in their entireties, it would lead to an increase in the world’s stocks of the mutated strain. Should such stocks be confined to a sole laboratory for only research uses, and if so, what part of the scientific community would be allowed access to it? A regulatory body would then be needed to monitor and control such access.
The Case of Bio-Terrorism
History contains an abundance of national and international instances where scientific research in viruses and toxins has found malevolent hands that have used them to terrorize, attack and waste innumerable human lives.
Of these, the anthrax attacks of 2011 are only a decade old in our collective memory, while colonist use of small pox to perpetrate cultural genocide remains a staple topic in history textbooks and in the cultural memory of colonized nations.
In the Middle East, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s attempts at experimentation with bio-warfare were evidenced by the country’s bio-weapons production and purification facilities, which mass produced weapons grade anthrax in 1989 and purified toxins such as botulinum toxin, ricin and aflatoxin—all for the purpose of wasting human lives.
Lastly, the ricin attacks in the United States only two months ago provide a civilian instance of the potential of bio-terrorism in combination with ill intent.
Considering such precedents of toxin- and virus-abuse, it is impossible to guarantee that the mutated H5N1 strain will never reach malevolent hands and intentions, the stakes are simply too high.
Paternalistic Control or Absolute Information Commons?
On a global scale, deteriorating political situations and the influx of poor decisions on the part of government authorities have sparked a prevalent atmosphere of mass discontent and skepticism of authoritarian control.
Still, I believe this particular case is one where tight government regulation is preferable to data accessibility.
While further scientific research stemming from the two studies is clearly desirable, the individuals allowed access to study and work with this virus and all its potent potential must be selected through a rigorous system that ensures they are responsible, trustworthy and entirely competent.
With the media attention that this study has received, it seems only responsible to tighten government control over its subsequent replication and reuse, to ensure the safety of the world population and to prevent—or if prevention is impossible, to delay—a worldwide flu pandemic.
While the maintenance of information commons is of the utmost importance, it would be wise to implement its boundaries when the mass destruction of human lives becomes a possible scenario.