In September, an amiable Dutchman stepped up to the podium at a scientific meeting convened on the island of Malta and announced that he had created a form of influenza that could well be the deadliest contagious disease humanity has ever faced. The bombshell announcement, by virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center, sparked weeks of vigorous debate among the world's experts on bioterrorism, influenza, virology, and national security over whether the research should have been performed or announced and whether it should ever be published.
Meanwhile, a joint Japanese-American research team led by the University of Wisconsin's Yoshihiro Kawaoka says that it, too, has manufactured a superflu. Additionally, a team at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta has acknowledged doing similar research, without successfully making the über flu. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is now deliberating whether to censor publication of the Fouchier and Kawaoka papers, though it lacks any actual power to do so: It could so advise scientific journals, but editors would still decide. The advisory board is expected to release its decision on Dec. 15.
The interest in this brave new world of biology is not limited to the scientific community. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise visit to Geneva on Dec. 7, addressing the Biological Weapons Convention review conference. The highest-ranking U.S. official to speak to the biological weapons group in decades, Clinton warned, "The emerging gene-synthesis industry is making genetic material widely available. This obviously has many benefits for research, but it could also potentially be used to assemble the components of a deadly organism."
"A crude but effective terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of any number of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment, and college-level chemistry and biology," Clinton also stated. "Less than a year ago, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula made a call to arms for, and I quote, 'brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry to develop a weapon of mass destruction.'"
Noting that "It is not possible, in our opinion, to create a verification regime" for biological weapons compliance under the convention, Clinton called for voluntary transparency on biological experimentation among the 165 countries that have signed the agreement.
Officials throughout the U.S. government are declining to comment on the influenza experiments or elaborate on Clinton's comments and appearance in Geneva. The influenza scientists were politely but firmly instructed recently by U.S. officials to keep their mouths shut and provide no data or details regarding their experiments to anybody. Sources inside the Dutch, German, and French governments say that discreet agreement was reached among Western leaders to greet the influenza pronouncements with a wall of silence, pending the advisory board's decision and detailed analysis of the experiments by classified intelligence and scientific bodies.