December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

A year after the publication of breakthrough bird flu research was delayed due to bioterrorism concerns, Jenny Mitchell explores the dual-use dilemma of continued research ...

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A year after the publication of breakthrough bird flu research was delayed due to bioterrorism concerns, Jenny Mitchell explores the dual-use dilemma of continued research. 

In December 2011, Ron Fouchier, a virologist at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, inadvertently sparked international controversy after submitting a research paper for publication. The paper explained the method he had used to mutate a highly lethal strain of bird flu, H5N1. His research suggested that H5N1 was only 5 mutations away from being able to pass through the air from person to person (rather than the typical bird-to-human transmission).

On the face of it, this research looked to be a major breakthrough in the understanding of bird flu transmission. That was until a US biosecurity committee declared the research too dangerous to publish – calling for it, and another similar paper, to be censored. Media interest ensued and concerns over the security of research into such highly lethal viruses began to surface.

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Since the current H5N1 outbreak began in 2003, 345 of the 584 confirmed cases have been fatal, giving H5N1 a potential mortality rate of 59%. These high mortality rates have been the focus of debate surrounding the continuation of research using the lethal strain of bird flu virus. It is feared that the description of mutations necessary for the virus to spread form person to person could be used by bioterrorists to create a ‘superweapon’.

However, Wendy Barclay, the chair in Influenza Virology at Imperial College London, is concerned by the possible ramifications of such a censorship: “I don’t agree that science should be censored, how do you know that by not telling somebody something, you’re not preventing the next breakthrough? The point of science is that we use our combined brains together, we share our knowledge.”

Both papers involved in this dispute have now been published in full. But scientists have recognised the need to address public and governmental concern surrounding the dangers involved in studying highly pathogenic viruses. However, the debate over who, if anyone, should be allowed to carry on with this possibly harmful research has left scientific investigation into the potentially lethal virus strain virtually at a standstill.

And according to Professor Barclay, there may be dangerous consequences associated with this voluntary moratorium upon investigations into bird flu: “This science has been on hold for almost a year, and that’s a terribly long time in the world of science. Certainly the virus hasn’t been on hold for a year, it hasn’t stopped circulating in South East Asia, it hasn’t stopped mutating and it hasn’t become any less of a pandemic threat.”

The H5N1 debate is an excellent example of the ethical tightrope negotiated by science. On one side lies public and governmental uncertainty, whilst on the other lies research aiming to limit the potential impact of the virus. Whilst it is true that research conducted using H5N1 could pose a risk to public safety, in stopping the research are we increasing the risk of future pandemics?

IMAGES: Claire Lynn