How to Research Deadly Germs Without Helping Terrorists: View

Bird flu kills more than half the people who catch it. The saving grace of H5N1 is that it’s not easily spread among humans. Almost all of the 600 people who have been infected by the virus in its 14-year history have picked it up from infected poultry.

It was understandable, then, that ears perked up in September when Dutch researchers at a virology conference in Malta announced they had created a new form of H5N1 that was highly transmissible, mammal to mammal. (Specifically, in the lab, it was ferret to ferret.)

Another cause for alarm, according to a U.S. government advisory panel on biosecurity, was that terrorists might exploit the new results to create their own lethal, contagious virus. To head off this possibility, the panel, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, asked scientific journals not to publish all the details of the experiments -- both those done in the Netherlands and similar ones done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (The two studies were paid for by the National Institutes of Health.)

The NSABB’s request -- rare in the world of biomedical science -- is not binding, so it isn’t censorship. But it’s probably futile, and it makes scientists uneasy, given their need to share and understand one another’s data. The Dutch research, for instance, marked a big step forward in getting ahead of any natural mutation that might allow bird flu to spread easily among humans. The data will inform new efforts to develop surveillance tools, vaccines and drug treatments.

The NSABB recommended that when the new research is published in the journals Nature and Science (no date has yet been set), the reports should omit “methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.” The scientists should share that data only with legitimate scientists who need it.

The trouble is, that’s a large number of scientists, certainly in the hundreds. From there, the information could spread with ease, if it hadn’t already after the Malta conference. Dutch researchers agreed to respect the NSABB’s advice. But, clearly, this was a weak solution that came too late in the game.

With research on H5N1 and other deadly germs moving at a fast pace and terrorism still threatening the world, we should expect to be in this situation again. Biomedical research projects that have the potential to be exploited for bioterrorism should be evaluated before they begin. The National Institutes of Health needs a system for doing that.

Such a review process was recommended eight years ago by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences. Known as the Fink Committee, for its chairman, Gerald Fink, a genetics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this group listed seven classes of experiments that should come under review, including those aimed at rendering a vaccine ineffective, conferring resistance to antibiotics or making a pathogen more virulent or transmissible.

The Department of Health and Human Services didn’t take up this recommendation in 2004, but the new studies of bird flu demonstrate why it should be reconsidered.

Naturally, scientists chafe at the idea. But review and restriction of research isn’t unknown in biomedicine. Already, the federal government requires that scientists who engage in experiments on human subjects submit their research plans to institutional review boards, which determine whether the proposed work is safe enough to go forward.

Perhaps a similar system of institutional review boards could be used for work on disease germs. The University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies is one of several institutions that have already offered ideas for getting started. It has suggested, for example, a checklist of criteria that could gauge the riskiness of experiments.

The principle is clear. In terrorism’s Information Age, some information needs to be handled with care. At the same time, we can’t let a review system hamper vital work on dangerous pathogens. As virologists know, nature can conduct bioterrorism on its own, with no help from science. And researchers must be able to do all they can to stay one step ahead.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.

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