I think the first news report I saw about the possibility of genetically engineering avian influenza to be more virulent was this one by the redoubtable Brandon Keim of Wired in 2010. Keim’s post did not really make clear why Yoshihiro Kawaoka, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison had sought to develop a more virulent strain of the virus; it seems to suggest it was done to show it could be done, and that hence, if some final obstacles were overcome, some such pandemic would be “inevitable.” In any case, the research was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and apparently included guidance on the particular human protein that would allow the virus to occupy the upper respiratory tract.
The next story I saw was just this past November, when Kristen Philipkoski at Gizmodo posted that “Engineered Avian Flu Could Kill Half the World’s Humans.” Philipkoski presented the research of virologist Ron Fouchier, and noted the many red flags that might have gone up in the course of his efforts to increase the virulence of H5N1. But no:
He presented his work at the influenza conference in Malta this September. Now he wants to publish his study in a scientific journal, so those responsible for responding to bioterrorism can be prepared for the worst case scenario. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Not exactly. The research has set off alarms among colleagues who are urging Fouchier not to publish, for fear the recipe could wind up in the wrong hands. Some question whether the research should have been done in the first place. Fair point!
Fair point indeed.
I waited for follow-on stories that would suggest that the danger here had been exaggerated, or that there was some extremely compelling reason that Philipkoski had missed for Fouchier to have undertaken his work. To date, I’ve seen nothing along those lines; do let me know in the comments what I might have missed. But the danger of the situation seems to be more or less confirmed by news reports this week that the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has, for the first time ever, requested that Nature and Science publish only redacted versions of Fouchier’s work, and of further work by Kawaoka. (Fouchier, to his credit, seems to have agreed to the request, if grudgingly and skeptically.)
This time, Gizmodo’s Jamie Condliffe is up in arms. The request is
not cool.... I admit that this is a tough situation, but censoring journals is a dangerous precedent to set.... In many respects, this goes against the nature of science. Science works because people announce their findings for others to question — allowing us to confirm or refute them. That’s how science progresses, and censoring it like this kills the process. It’s also a hugely dangerous precedent to set. I hope the journals win out.
Condliffe’s knee-jerk reaction is only slightly less sophisticated than the pontificating by the journal editors about what “responsible influenza researchers” need to know. For while Fouchier may be willing to see his work redacted, it is not so clear Science is willing to publish it that way. Says Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts, “Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety.”
“How science works” is of course important to the transhumanist project as well, and the libertarian impulse in the face of potentially grave danger that this particular incident reveals is not especially promising. Condliffe’s laissez-faire attitude toward science, and Alberts’s attempts to gain the upper hand over the NSABB, are not the brave defenses of the scientific enterprise that they intend them to be — for they are defending irresponsibility.
We have made a list of experts that we could share this with, and that list adds up to well over 100 organizations around the globe, and probably 1,000 experts. As soon as you share information with more than 10 people, the information will be on the street. And so we have serious doubts whether this advice can be followed, strictly speaking.
Is he being cynical, or is this his honest assessment of the ability of his professional colleagues to act in the public interest? When developing atomic weapons, genuinely responsible researchers worked in the full knowledge that their path-breaking efforts would not be published at all, and that any sharing of knowledge would be on a strictly need-to-know basis among an extremely carefully restricted group. Would it not be the very definition of “responsible researcher” for any genetic engineer working in this newer field of weapons of mass destruction to accept, indeed actively seek, similarly serious restrictions?
[Editor’s note: For an analysis of the likelihood of pathogens being bioengineered and weaponized by terrorists or rogue states, see the article “Could Terrorists Exploit Synthetic Biology?” from the Spring 2011 issue of The New Atlantis, by our late contributor Jonathan B. Tucker.]
Image: The Birds (1963), © Universal Pictures