The Biodefense-Industrial Complex vs. Science

I was revving up to post a long rant about the censorship of a new paper on H5N1 influenza, but my friend and TWiV co-host Vincent Racaniello beat me to it. I do, however, have a couple of things to add.

If you’re just tuning in, the short version goes like this: some researchers claim to have isolated a novel strain of H5N1 “bird flu” that is highly transmissible in ferrets, the standard animal model for human flu infection. This triggered a huge round of hand-wringing by various quasi-official groups, claiming that this information could allow some imaginary “bioterrorist” to create The Plague of The Apocalypse. Or words to that effect. Today, the authors of the study announced that they would redact some of the data from the paper to prevent that from happening.

But as Vincent explains in his post:

The article hints that details of the experiments may be made available to influenza virologists ‘with a legitimate interest in knowing them’. Who will decide what constitutes a legitimate interest? And what if a virologist, or another scientist who does not work on influenza virus, has an idea for an experiment and would like the details? Will they be denied because they are not card-carrying influenza virologists? Science often works in unusual ways, and one of them is that difficult problems are often solved by individuals from different areas of research.

In addition, the data have already passed through dozens, perhaps hundreds of hands. There are the folks in the lab who did the work, any collaborators they worked with, the peer reviewers for the papers, anyone at Science and Nature who handled the manuscripts, and of course the sysadmins for every email server connecting all of those geographically distant points. Most scientists don’t have the first clue about information security, so any terrorist who actually wanted these experimental details could probably get them. The only people who won’t have easy access to the data are precisely the folks we want working on this problem.

But why would the terrorists even bother? What the paper shows (allegedly – it still hasn’t been published) is that H5N1 can become contagious in ferrets while retaining its virulence. That certainly could be bad news for weasels who spend a lot of time around poultry farms, but it’s not at all clear what it means for the rest of us. While ferrets are probably the best animal model we have for studying influenza infection, that’s not saying much. Their track record on predicting virulence is particularly spotty; H1N1 “swine flu” is terribly deadly to ferrets, but actually less lethal in humans than most regular seasonal flu strains. There have been quite a few human cases of H5N1 already, so whatever adapting the virus can do in us, it’s already had lots of chances. We’re not dead yet.

If I were a terrorist, I certainly wouldn’t waste my time following up such a weak lead, particularly since there are so many easier, cheaper, more reliable ways to cause terror. How about 1918 flu? It’s unquestionably deadly to humans, and the full sequence – unredacted – came out in 2005. Or anthrax? Or SARS? Nature abounds with nasty microbes.

But why bother with these fickle biological agents at all? Explosives aren’t nearly as hard to work with, and from the headlines it looks as if they continue to serve terrorists’ needs quite well. Finally, let’s remember that most of the official paranoia of the past decade was brought to us by a small group of guys armed with nothing but box cutters, basic flight training, and hatred. How are we going to redact that?