TEMPTING fate is never wise; tempting a flu pandemic is downright foolish.
Yet it is impossible for scientists to understand influenza or create vaccines without at least some risk. The question, then, is what level of risk is acceptable.
On December 20th the American authorities said they had asked the world’s leading scientific journals to withhold research on the matter. The request, to Science (an American publication) and Nature (a British one), is unusual. But so is the research in question. Two separate teams, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, have tinkered with H5N1, otherwise known as bird flu. The resulting strains are dramatically more dangerous.
According to the World Health Organisation, bird flu has killed more than 330 people since 2003. That is a staggering 60% of the 570-odd cases recorded worldwide in that period. (The actual fatality rate may be lower since non-fatal cases of bird flu are more likely to escape detection than fatal ones.) The “Spanish flu” of 1918-20, which infected 500m people, claimed the lives of no more than one in five sufferers.
H5N1’s toll would certainly have been greater than hundreds had it not been for an important limitation: unlike its Spanish sister it is not easily transmitted to humans, or between them. But if the virus ever evolved to hop nimbly from person to person it too could wreak a pandemic.
That evolution has now occurred, helped by the researchers in Madison and Rotterdam. Each team engineered the virus so that it could be transmitted through the air from ferret to ferret (ferrets, surprisingly, are good proxies for humans). Details of both studies are still under wraps but a paper Dr Fouchier presented in September at a virology conference in Malta outlined his team’s approach.
According to reports from the meeting, his team first tried to fiddle with the flu genome directly, introducing bespoke changes to it in an effort to create an airborne strain. When this did not work, he resorted to the low-tech method of passing the virus—with a few engineered mutations that had not themselves done the trick—from one ferret to another a number of times, giving it an opportunity to evolve naturally. After several generations evolution worked its (in this case black) magic: the flu had gone airborne. The nasty strain had five mutations in two genes. Each of these has, notes Dr Fouchier, already been found in nature, only in separate strains and never clumped together.
So far, the new, deadlier flu strains exist only in laboratories, of course. However, the fear is that if the researchers are allowed to describe the genetic changes needed to create them and the precise methods used to do this, then terrorists or other mischief-makers will be able to copy the techniques. H5N1 could become the atom bomb of biological warfare.
American officials want to prevent this from happening. After the anthrax attacks of 2001, America created the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to advise the health department. Until now the body has exercised a light touch. For example, it did not flinch when, in 2005, researchers at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Maryland reconstructed the Spanish flu virus. The work was subsequently published in Science and Nature after the NSABB concluded that the benefits of making it public outweighed the risks.
This time the NSABB has not asked the two journals to withhold the new research altogether. Rather, it has tried to strike a balance, suggesting that they publish enough information to encourage further understanding and responsible research, but not enough to allow the researchers’ methods to be put to nefarious use. It also suggested that the revised manuscripts explain the potential public-health benefits of the research, as well as the safety and security measures in place at the labs where it is being conducted.
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