When two groups of scientists on either side of the Atlantic engineered a highly contagious strain of avian flu, their findings were variously hailed as brilliant, groundbreaking – and reckless.
Late last year, researchers in the United States and the Netherlands announced they'd manipulated the H5N1 virus so it could be spread between mammals and through the air. It’s a global first for a virulent virus. And if the dangerous, transmissible mutation were unleashed – by accident or through malice – it could have pandemic consequences.
At a special meeting in Geneva last week, the World Health Organization recommended that the sensitive research be published, igniting a tussle within the ranks of global leaders on science, health and security: At what point does potentially life-saving data become reckless bait for would-be bioterrorists?
The recommendation to publish flies in the face of pleas for self-censorship from a U.S. government watchdog, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. The board asked researchers to hold back on releasing crucial “how-to” portions of their work for fear the details would fall into the wrong hands and spark germ warfare on a global scale. Anyone who needs the information for legitimate research, the board reasoned, could make a special request for it.
Not good enough, the WHO committee decided. The new knowledge, every last bit of it, should be freely available. From a public-health perspective, the committee wrote in a statement, full disclosure is the best option.
That conclusion is sending shock waves through the global scientific, epidemiological and counter-terror communities. And it has particular resonance in Canada.
Save the world from pandemic
The scariest thing about infectious-disease research is that the most dangerous disease out there is the one you don’t know about, because it doesn’t exist yet.
Scientists developing new vaccines can barely keep pace with the rate at which virulent viruses morph into something just different enough to evade the latest cutting-edge treatment.
So it’s no surprise that microbiologists and immunology researchers want to get ahead of the game by trying to guess which way a virus will mutate next – and how it will behave once it shape-shifts.
From this perspective, details of the powerful avian flu created in labs at the University of Wisconsin and the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam are of maximum importance to people in the business of stalking viruses.
Details of a microscopic viral mutation can mean the difference between recognizing a lethal breed of disease and missing its significance altogether, says Gary Kobinger, a University of Manitoba microbiologist and head of vector design and immunotherapy at the National Microbiology Laboratory of the Public Health Agency of Canada.
If scientists on the lookout for new flu mutations find one whose fingerprint matches this one, they’ll respond very differently than they would without that knowledge, Dr. Kobinger says.
The Winnipeg site is home to Canada’s highest-security bio-safety laboratory, where Dr. Kobinger and his colleagues are researching new vaccines and testing virulent diseases. Knowing what human-transmissible H5N1 looks like would make a huge difference for those watching out for new natural mutations of the virus.
“It’s a very important public-health impact,” says Dr. Kobinger. But “we'd need to have the details. If we don't have the mutation, we're back to square one.”
Canada has a lot on the line in this field. Ottawa is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on experiments researching biological and chemical weaponry.
The military’s research and development arm, Defence Research and Development Canada, has its own biological defence program with an annual budget exceeding $8-million. Separate research into chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive technology has a multi-year budget of $175-million through the end of this year. Between 2002 and 2011 it undertook 152 research projects with a combined budget of $241-million.
These experiments range from developing new vaccines for the world’s most dangerous diseases to coming up with new ways to detect biological weapons and clean contaminated sites.
Meanwhile, the U.S. scientist behind the mutated flu virus has stepped into the fray to defend his work.
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