It’s hard to imagine a nervier end-of-the-year story. H5N1 is a highly virulent strain of bird flu. If it ever went aerosol, transmitting itself between humans through coughing or sneezing, it would probably kill a billion people before a vaccine got a handle on it. Since its identification in recent years, the virus is known to have killed half of the 600 or so people infected by it.
Fortunately, it’s not transmitted between humans via either coughing or sneezing.
But, according to an extremely alarming report in the New York Times yesterday, that happy circumstance is in material danger of changing:
For the first time ever, a government advisory board is asking scientific journals not to publish details of certain biomedical experiments, for fear that the information could be used by terrorists to create deadly viruses and touch off epidemics.
In the experiments, conducted in the United States and the Netherlands, scientists created a highly transmissible form of a deadly flu virus [H5N1] that does not normally spread from person to person. It was an ominous step, because easy transmission can lead the virus to spread all over the world. . . .
“This finding shows it’s much easier to evolve this virus to an extremely dangerous state where it can be transmitted in aerosols than anybody had recognized,” he [Science editor Bruce Alberts] said. Transmission by aerosols means the virus can be spread through the air via coughing or sneezing.
Ever since the tightening of security after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, scientists have worried that a scientific development would pit the need for safety against the need to share information. Now, it seems, that day has come.
Absorb that. H5N1, in a highly transmissible form, has been created in a lab, and scientists are now trying to decide how much of this feat should be shared publicly.
The transmissible form, by the way, spread among lab ferrets, a mammal like us with a very similar immune system, not a creature from the avian family. And the virus transmitted to other ferrets through the air.
In the New York Times article is a paragraph I think is even more alarming (if that were possible) than the ones quoted above:
Given that some of the information has already been presented openly at scientific meetings, and that articles about it have been sent out to other researchers for review, experts acknowledged that it may not be possible to keep a lid on the potentially dangerous details.
Translation: the cat is already basically out of the bag.
This fall, federal officials said, the board wrestled with the content of H5N1 papers to Science and Nature, and in late November contacted the journals about its recommendation to restrict information on the methods that the scientists used to modify the deadly virus.
“The ability of this virus to cross species lines in this manner has not previously been appreciated,” said Dr. Patterson of the National Institutes of Health.
Welcome to the 21st century.