Research, the Avian Flu and Bioterrorism

January 26, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Public Health 
Aesop's fable, "The Peacock and the Crow," from the 1470's Medici Manuscript

Aesop’s fable, “The Peacock and the Crow,” from the 1470′s Medici Manuscript

In their zeal to keep us all alive, it seems fair to say that public health officials love bioterrorism preparedness measures. In fact, the only thing they might love planning for more is pandemics. So last month, when researchers at two different facilities revealed they were able to mutate the virulent H5N1 avian flu strain to pass between mammals simply through the air, the NIH was highly concerned.

The discovery is alarming because avian flu is considered one of the world’s deadliest pathogens, with a 60% mortality rate. But while avian flu viruses have infected humans in the past, those infections have come directly from birds. If the virus can be mutated into an airborne pathogen, the consequences can be catastrophic.

Two research teams (one led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, and the other by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin) engineered the new bird flu strains. After growing the H5N1 strain for several generations, the scientists discovered the exact genetic mutations that allowed the virus to be transmitted by air between ferrets. The results could be easily duplicated if the teams publish their studies with full details.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a U.S. government advisory panel that is run out of the NIH, asked the journals Science and Nature to delay publication of the research. The NIH released the following details in a press release:

Due to the importance of the findings to the public health and research communities, the NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm. The NSABB also recommended that language be added to the manuscripts to explain better the goals and potential public health benefits of the research, and to detail the extensive safety and security measures taken to protect laboratory workers and the public.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Central Panel, Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Central Panel, Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

The request has sparked a debate about if and when it is appropriate to have oversight of dual-use research. As defined by the NSABB, dual-use research of concern is research that is “reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied by others to pose a threat to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, the environment or materiel.”   A good synopsis of the bioethical implications of such research is considered by Alan Rozenshtein on

One of the research team leaders, Ron Fouchier, responded that the NSABB’s advice amounted to one-country domination of a discussion with worldwide impact. At the same time, he conceded that the mutant strain is “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.” The professor who oversees biosafety for University of Wisconsin, William Mellon, responded that the research is “society’s best defense against a pathogen that has shown time and time again that, in nature, it can adapt to human hosts with dire consequences for global public health.”

Science and Nature were slower to respond. Last month, Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts noted the journal’s initial hesitation to acquiesce to the NSABB recommendation-

“We strongly support the work of the NSABB and the importance of its mission for advancing science to serve society…At the same time, however, Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers. Many scientists within the influenza community have a bona fide need to know the details of this research in order to protect the public, especially if they currently are working with related strains of the virus.”

Nature‘s Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell replied along the same lines:

“We have noted the unprecedented NSABB recommendations that would restrict public access to data and methods and recognise the motivation behind them. It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers. We are discussing with interested parties how, within the scenario recommended by NSABB, appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled.”

The issue at hand is as one scientist, Peter Palese, opined in Nature: “We need more people to study this potentially dangerous pathogen, but who will want to enter a field in which you can’t publish your most scientifically interesting results?”

Just last week, both teams of researchers announced in an open letter published in Science and Nature that they agreed to pause their work for 60 days. In the meantime, the teams propose to discuss the benefits and safety measures of their work in an international forum for discussion and debate within the scientific community. The researchers stated in the open letter,

“We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work. To provide time for these discussions, we have agreed on a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals.”

Where, when and how these discussions will take place on an international level remains to be seen, but the NSABB appears to have made its point.

An unintended effect of the recommendations is that they have called into question the role and purpose of the NSABB. The NSABB was created in 2004, as a response to the 2001 anthrax attacks and the subsequent public outcry for regulation of research with implications for bioterrorism. As past president of the American Society for Microbiology, Ronald Atlas, put it, “[t]here was a sense, whether right or wrong, that if the community did not act to protect the integrity of science, government would overreach and there would be censorship.” Instead of regulating scientific research directly, the NSABB panel of scientists was given the role of offering advisory opinions on sensitive issues.

Since 2004, the NSABB has only been asked to review six papers. Two of those papers, released in 2005, described the reconstruction of the deadly 1918 influenza virus. The NSABB recommended that the papers clearly define the public-health benefits of the research, but no other advice was given. This is partly why the NSABB’s current recommendation is unprecedented.

According to Amy Patterson, director of the NIH, a draft policy for dual-use research should be presented by the U.S. government this spring. The draft should present a comprehensive framework for the oversight of such research, and create a local review component. As she states it,

Whatever system is put in place needs to have both aspects: some consideration up front when the work is funded, but also a component of local oversight and review. It starts with the investigator — he or she knows best what is emerging out of their work. But we also need a level of institutional review to provide a second set of eyes taking a fresh look. The earlier something is recognized, the more options for management you have.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated that the draft plan may require scientists to apply online for access to critical information, after explaining their need for details on dual-use research. As of right now, it is unclear who would judge the validity of such requests. It is worth noting that at least one other institution, the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies, has outlined potential oversight systems already.

Popular Science Monthly, 1889, "The Smallest Bird"

Popular Science Monthly, 1889, “The Smallest Bird”

The dilemma of dual-use research is already a global problem, and therefore requires a global solution. The World Health Organization commented after the H5N1 mutations, stating a deep concern about the possible misuses of the research. The WHO was quick to note the critical need for such scientific knowledge, but concluded that “such research should be done only after all important public health risks and benefits have been identified and reviewed, and it is certain that the necessary protections to minimize the potential for negative consequences are in place.”

As Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes in a thorough review of international mechanisms for oversight of dual-use research, the first problem is that there are “no consistent, internationally agreed-upon regulations governing synthetic biology.” The only review that does currently exist is the “toothless” Biological Weapons Convention(BWC) from 1975, to which 165 states are party.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended a BWC summit, and stated-

The nature of the problem [dual-use research] is evolving. The advances in science and technology make it possible to both prevent and cure more diseases, but also easier for states and nonstate actors to develop biological weapons. A crude, but effective, terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of any number of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment, and college-level chemistry and biology. Even as it becomes easier to develop these weapons, it remains extremely difficult . . . to detect them, because almost any biological research can serve dual purposes. The same equipment and technical knowledge used for legitimate research to save lives can also be used to manufacture deadly diseases.”

The need for global cooperation on this issue is crucial.

In truth, it seems that pandemics fascinate most of society, and not just public health professionals. Last year saw the release of the movie Contagion, with a plot line appealing enough to enlist the acting talents of Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon (for a great comparison of the movie to real-world issues, see  W. Ian Lipkin’s op-ed for the New York Times). Further, avian flu remains a present threat. Just this month, Chinese health authorities confirmed a bird-flu-related death, Indonesia reported the third death related to bird flu in three months, and there are reports of avian flu among birds in India. Given that H5N1 remains such a threat without the consideration of bioterrorism, the need for regulations on dual-use research is seemingly more apparent than ever.