November 27, 2011

Novel Deadly Flu Virus and Publication Controls on Dual-Use Research of Concern

Post 9/11, the assessment of bioterrorism risks has also encompassed considering whether the publication of scientific research that provides a road map for the creating of deadly pathogens should be constrained. It’s hard to ignore the increase in reports of laboratory research that has created a novel and deadly influenza virus that could pose a human influenza pandemic risk. For background, there are several strains of influenza, not all of which pose a threat to human health. H5N1 influenza virus has long been a most virulent (deadly) form of influenza, but largely found in birds (avian flu) – fortunately, it has not been capable of efficient transmission from animal to human or spread between humans. Thus, although the virus has a high mortality rate (around 60%), it is not readily contagious, a fact that has limited its potential threat to humans. Now there are reports of the laboratory creation of a deliberately mutated H5N1 virus that was developed by Ron Fourchier and colleagues at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands which they reported at an influenza virus conference in September - in which they discovered that only 5 genetic mutations were required for a relatively inert H5N1 to acquire the capability of efficient spread among ferrets, long used as an animal/mammalian model of human influenza. Here is the short news report from the conference proceedings. Thus, it is possible to extrapolate that this novel virus has the properties of high lethality and efficient transmissibility in humans. No scientific report has been published to date. But there is reaction from the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a federal advisory body created post-9/11 and located under the auspices of the NIH.  The NSABB is charged with evaluating what is known as “dual-use” research of concern (DURC) – work that is motivated by scientific inquiry but also offers the possibility of adverse use if the results are used in a dangerous manner; the NSABB can recommend that scientific work not be published (but it cannot prevent it).  A prime example of NSABB concern would be the creation of a novel virus, in which researchers attempt to learn what genetic changes separate a benign from a deadly virus – but in order to do so, they create the deadly virus and publish the experimental details. To date, it is reported that the NSABB has been asked to evaluate the risk of publication of this influenza work.

Post-9/11, there was an effort to create more awareness of the dangers of publishing such dual-use research in the life sciences – possible bioterrorism applications were in mind. Earlier concerns attached to such publication as the artificially constructed poliovirus and research that dissected the smallpox virus to identify the genes that confer such lethality. Although there is no scientific paper by Fouchier and colleagues yet, it remains to be seen what the NSABB will recommend, and whether the details of the scientific work will be made public, either formally or informally. Should we know what 5 mutations will convert a benign flu virus to a malignant version? Pro: yes, because this is part of learning how to counter and monitor the already-existing biological threats to human health; nature could generate a mutant virus with pandemic risk, even without human intervention; the work required to engineer such a virus is high-tech and formidable, not readily undertaken by rogue actors. Con: the dangers of such knowledge (and production of viral stocks) outweigh the intellectual gain - there is no containment of knowledge. My own view is that a deeper understanding of the pathology of microorganisms is irresistible if we are to fully capture and integrate how the microbial world coexists with humans and continues to generate health risks. Further attention to this reported virus is likely to refocus efforts on what we have (or need) in vaccines and antivirals (which is hard to do in the absence of some perceived imminent risk). We'll watch to see what further details emerge.

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