Could information about a lab-made virus really help evildoers create a biological weapon?
The board has no legal, binding authority, Fauci points out. But it’s clear that the authors, the journals, and the NIH are taking the board’s unprecedented vote very seriously and are working on a way to follow its recommendations. They’re figuring out a system that will allow qualified—and fully vetted—researchers to see the full data.
A number of scientists outside the board have applauded the board for ensuring that bioterrorists don’t get their hands on information they could use. Some researchers question whether the experiments yielded enough useful information to justify the risks. Ian Lipkin, the director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, believes there’s no reason to assume that the mutations that arose in Fouchier’s experiments would be the ones that would arise out in the real world. “On the other hand,” Lipkin says, “publishing this information would give people a roadmap to creating Frankenstein viruses.”
The scientists who are concerned about this information getting out aren’t claiming that terrorists could simply read the genome of Fouchier’s virus, synthesize new ones, and unleash a biological attack. For one thing, Fouchier’s viruses only appear to be able to go from one ferret to another. And ferrets, as good as they may be for studying the flu, are still ferrets. Released into the real world, the viruses might fail to spread from human to human.
Rather, the concern is that publishing the new studies in full would offer a useful starting point for someone who’s trying to turn H5N1 into a biological weapon. They could add more mutations to the ones Fouchier has identified, using the same methods of passing viruses from one animal to another until they hit the virological jackpot.
There are a lot of reasons to consider this scenario unlikely: The experiments that have the NASBB so concerned weren’t simple; they were carried out in some of the world’s most sophisticated virology labs. It’s conceivable that someone could just try breeding flu viruses simply by transferring them from one animal to another in a low-tech experiment. But if H5N1 turned into a human flu along the way, the people who were breeding it might well be the first to die.
But let’s assume for the moment that the risks are big enough to worry about. Is holding back information the best way to eliminate them? Wimmer doesn’t think so, since the gist of the experiments have already escaped. If some villain has enough money, he or she can just run a similar experiment. “Whether details of the Dutch experiments will be published or not would not matter,” he says.
“Not publishing the sequence is a rather silly attempt of containment,” says Mueller. He argues that scientists should head in the other direction, to prepare both for any possible bioterror, and for nature’s own attacks. “Not only should this be published completely, I think these experiments should be repeated numerous times,” he says.
For Wimmer, who built polioviruses nine years ago, the controversy over the flu viruses gives him an intense case of déjà vu. His virus creations caused a huge uproar. There was even a movement in Congress to condemn it. But Wimmer had a very good reason for synthesizing viruses from scratch. Working with Mueller and others, he’s turned synthetic viruses into promising vaccines against diseases such as influenza. We may fear the risks that come with scientific progress, but Wimmer’s work reveals the dangers of fear itself. When the next bird flu comes—and it will come—it may be Wimmer’s Frankenstein viruses that save us.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.
*Correction, Dec. 22, 2011: This article originally misspelled Eckard Wimmer's first name.