[Debate] An Engineered Doomsday - NYT
Riaz K Tayob
riaz.tayob at gmail.com
Mon Jan 9 19:02:45 GMT 2012
An Engineered Doomsday
By The New York Times | Editorial
08 January 12
cientists have long worried that an influenza virus that has ravaged
poultry and wild birds in Asia might evolve to pose a threat to humans.
Now scientists financed by the National Institutes of Health have shown
in a laboratory how that could happen. In the process they created a
virus that could kill tens or hundreds of millions of people if it
escaped confinement or was stolen by terrorists.
We nearly always champion unfettered scientific research and open
publication of the results. In this case it looks like the research
should never have been undertaken because the potential harm is so
catastrophic and the potential benefits from studying the virus so
Unless the scientific community and health officials can provide more
persuasive justifications than they have so far, the new virus, which is
in the Netherlands, ought to be destroyed. Barring that, it should be
put in a few government-controlled laboratories with the highest
containment rating, known as biosafety level 4. That is how the United
States and Russia contain samples of smallpox, which poses nowhere near
the same danger of global devastation.
In the future, it is imperative that any such experiments be rigorously
analyzed for potential dangers - preferably through an international
review mechanism, but also by governmental funding agencies - before
they are undertaken, not after the fact as is happening in this case.
The most frightening research was done by scientists at the Erasmus
Medical Center in Rotterdam, who sought to discover how likely it is
that the "bird flu" virus, designated A(H5N1), might mutate from a form
that seldom infects or spreads among humans into a form highly
transmissible by coughing or sneezing. Thus far the virus has infected
close to 600 humans and killed more than half of them, a fatality rate
that far exceeds the 2 percent rate in the 1918 influenza pandemic that
killed as many as 100 million people.
Working with ferrets, the animal that is most like humans in responding
to influenza, the researchers found that a mere five genetic mutations
allowed the virus to spread through the air from one ferret to another
while maintaining its lethality. A separate study at the University of
Wisconsin, about which little is known publicly, produced a virus that
is thought to be less virulent.
These findings led to an unprecedented request from an American federal
advisory board that the researchers and the two scientific journals that
plan to publish the studies omit any details that might help terrorists
figure out how to unleash a devastating pandemic. That presumably
includes details on how the engineered virus was made and details on the
precise mutations that allowed it to go airborne.
We doubt that anything at all should be published, but it seems clear
that something will be.
The two journals reviewing the papers seem inclined to follow the
advisory board's recommendations that the research be published in a
redacted form, provided there is some way for researchers who need the
information to gain access to the full details. The Erasmus team
believes that more than 100 laboratories and perhaps 1,000 scientists
around the world need to know the precise mutations to look for. That
would spread the information far too widely. It should suffice to have a
few of the most sophisticated laboratories do the analyses.
Defenders of the research in Rotterdam claim it will provide two major
benefits for protecting global health. First, they say the findings
could prove helpful in monitoring virus samples from infected birds and
animals. If genetic analysis found a virus somewhere that was only one
or two mutations away from going airborne, public health officials would
then know to bear down aggressively in that area to limit human contact
with infected poultry and ramp up supplies of vaccines and medicines.
But it is highly uncertain, even improbable, that the virus would mutate
in nature along the pathways prodded in a laboratory environment, so the
benefit of looking for these five mutations seems marginal.
A second postulated benefit is that the engineered virus can be used to
test whether existing antiviral drugs and vaccines would be effective
against it and, if they come up short, design new drugs and vaccines
that can neutralize it. But genetic changes that affect transmissibility
do not necessarily change the properties that make a virus susceptible
to drugs or to the antibodies produced by a vaccine, so that approach
may not yield much useful new information.
We cannot say there would be no benefits at all from studying the virus.
We respect the researchers' desire to protect public health. But the
consequences, should the virus escape, are too devastating to risk.
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