On the periphery of the average person’s awareness is a subdued yet hotly debated topic of the need for secrecy in science, specifically genetic engineering. Two teams of scientists have taken a particularly deadly bird flu virus (A/H5N1), which does not have a history of being easily transmitted between human beings, and have genetically re-engineered it using five mutations to make it highly contagious between mammals. The original A/H5N1 virus was highly lethal with a history of killing about 60% of the 600 known cases of people who contracted it since its discovery in 1997. Fortunately it was not contagious between human beings. One version of the new genetically engineered virus can be efficiently transmitted as shown between ferrets, which are known as the best animal model for influenza in humans.
As discussed in Chapter 13 of Beyond Animal, Ego and Time, the last ten years has seen significant growth in private and public biofab laboratories that will create laboratory produced genetic material to order. Today there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of laboratories around the world that will perform this type of mail order service. There has also been a profusion of hobbyist labs that have been created for less than a $10,000 investment.
Finally, there has been a growing awareness of the potential for terrorists to easily and cheaply utilize widely known genetically engineering techniques to create a deadly biological weapon. Given the high mortality rate of this genetically engineered bird flu virus, there is fear that it may accidentally escape a laboratory environment and/or that knowledge of how it was created would make it a highly desirable pathogen for use as a biological weapon.
As a result of these fears, the U.S. government, presumably the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), asked the independent National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to review two research articles, one accepted for publication in Nature and another accepted for publication in Science, to determine if the articles should be limited in terms of details and results. As a result of this review, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity just issued its report where the board concluded “the NSABB found that there was significant potential for harm in fully publishing these results and that the harm exceeded the benefits of publication, we therefore recommended that the work not be fully communicated in an open forum.”
To indicate how serious scientists view this issue the following are selected comments of concern:
“It is one of the most dangerous viruses you can make,” said Ron Fouchier, an author of the article submitted and accepted by Science magazine.
“Can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” said Paul Keim, chair of NSABB.
“It’s just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus, and it’s a second bad idea to publish how they did it so others can copy it,” said Thomas V. Inglesby, MD, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Use the following links for more information of the genetically engineered H5N1 virus controversy: