Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Friday, February 17, 2012

Avian influenza, ferrets, and bioterrorism: fear versus science

I learned about this last week, when Science published a short article on how the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity had recommended two research groups NOT to publish details on how avian influenza strains were modified in order to make them transmissible through aerosol in ferrets.

You can read that story here.

The first thing that struck me was: is this censorship? Because for as long as I've been a scientist I've known that the great bulk of scientific progress is made through the free exchange of ideas and results. The very core of scientific validation is in the reproducibility of an experiment, and you can't reproduce an experiment unless who conducted it shares the details.

Why then the recommendation?

The World Health Organization currently lists the case fatality of avian influenza (H5) somewhere between 50% and 80%. This is the percentage of all cases that report in a hospital and have been confirmed through labwork. Currently, it is transmissible through fluids by coming in contact with infected birds. The two studies under the radar here, by Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, have been submitted but not yet published to Science and Nature respectively. Though different, they both prove that it takes a relatively small number of mutations for the virus to become transmissible through aerosol in ferrets.

Why the fear? With a fatality rate anywhere above 50%, if you can make the virus transmissible through aerosol, you've got a deadly weapon. But is it so obvious one can make it?

First, ferrets are not humans and currently we have no way to predict whether what has been observed in ferrets is likely to happen in humans. For example, there are many strains of avian influenza, and they all have been circulating in birds for many decades. However, of all these strains, only three (H1, H2, and H3) have been able to circulate in humans. There is a natural bottleneck in the way a virus is able to adapt from one organism to another.

One may object we don't know for sure, so, theoretically, it could be possible. But in that case, is censorship the answer? I honestly don't think so and I was quite happy to find a PNAS paper [1] in complete agreement with my thoughts:
"Why Is it Important to Have the Full Data Published? With respect to the specific papers by Fouchier and Kawaoka, it would be important for other scientists to replicate portions of these works to test new vaccines/therapeutic agents and for continued studies on the molecular aspects of influenza transmission, a topic that is extremely important yet relatively poorly understood."
And, most importantly:
"It would be very difficult for a bioterrorist to come up with a human virus strain that is transmissible and still highly virulent. Under natural conditions, however, there is virtually unlimited allowance for generation of capable viruses, the opportunities for infection of humans are plentiful, and the evolutionary pressures of selection are great. If anyone could do it, Nature could."
And that's exactly why we need to be prepared. And the way we are prepared is by sharing results and having multiple groups worldwide brainstorm and join forces to find a vaccine.

What do you guys think?

Palese, P., & Wang, T. (2012). H5N1 influenza viruses: Facts, not fear Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (7), 2211-2213 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1121297109

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  1. Forewarned is forearmed. Knowledge censorship is pretty much never a good idea.

  2. antisocialbutterflieFebruary 17, 2012 at 3:54 PM

    I can see both sides of this issue. It seems like now that people know that the research exists the labs could make the data available to scientists with legitimate interests in the work. Though I suppose the question is then who decides what is "legitimate?"

    It seems to me that there is a difference between censorship and general dissemination of potentially dangerous information. I don't think there's a right answer here but it's definitely food for thought.

    1. I'm glad you came by to comment because knowing you are an experimentalist I was wondering how you felt about all this. I'm not sure either, but I do agree with the PNAS paper.

    2. antisocialbutterflieFebruary 17, 2012 at 8:51 PM

      I agree that the PNAS paper has a point but the question is whether not publishing the paper is going to genuinely prevent the research from being accessible to industrious scientists who want to look into it. Just because I can't access the paper via my University library doesn't mean that I can't email the authors to request their draft. Nor does it stop them from looking into my publication record to see if I have or work for a lab involved in viral replication/evolution/vaccine development who might have a valid reason for wanting to reproduce the data or build on it.

      I think if the work is solid and important (and what scientist doesn't think their work is important) that they will make it available to interested parties and perhaps form collaborations. I think the scientific community is underrating our capacity to generate peer review outside of the strictures of a journal format or overestimating the role of journals in policing our field.

      The problem lies in the fact that laypeople still look to glamour journals like Science and Nature to tell them what's important to science whether they understand the content or not (I certainly don't get all of it). This makes the content of a journal available to anyone who is willing to pay the fee. If I'm a terrorist the $30 article fee on a website is a non-existent barrier but if I have to explain to a real person that I have no lab or history in science but would like access to this potentially harmful information I might be slightly more discouraged.

      This is ignoring the topic of publicly funded research failing to be accessible to the taxpayer but hell the DOD has been doing that forever.

      I'm not saying that this is the right call, but I hesitate to call it flat out censorship since the fact that the data exists has been let out of the bag so to speak.

  3. EXACTLY!!! Okay, you're right, it's probably not accurate to call it censorship, but whatever it is, you're absolutely right: the work is done, it's out there, people have been talking about it. I don't know in this case, again, because being a theoretician, my mode of work is slightly different, but we present our results in conferences all the time and way before we have published the work. I imagine it's the same here. So the results are out there, what is the point of NOT publishing them now?

    Thanks so much, K.

  4. Great blog, informative and up to date. Bookmarking your page. Thanks and more power!

  5. As a lateral thinker I tend to look at things from differing angles. I've read your blog with much interest not having a scientic background such as yours. Some years ago an article by a retired specialist (US Army) was sent me regarding chemical and bio weapons. He said mis-information did more harm than the weapons themselves.

    Also it was nigh on impossible for aerosols to work given the number of variables which had to be overcome. Temperature, humidity, wind direction, time of dsy, to name a few. On top of that very few if any had the speciallist knowledge he had gained over a lifetime in the army.

    From my standpoint the reason for not publishing could well be just what the retired specialist pointed to. Mis-information. Holding back info is as bad as, if not worse than, no information. The reason I don't read journals like Science and Nature is given by a previous poster. Hard facts not glamour.

    Great blog btw.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Frazer, and for reading, I appreciate it. I think it can go either way. At this point, the news was out but the details were missing if left unpublished. Sometimes half of the information can lead to misinformation as well. But I do understand your concerns.


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