Should we worry? If these scientists have indeed used the techniques that they have verbally described (but not yet published) to produce a highly contagious and virulent form of the so-called "bird flu," the feat can at least theoretically be performed by lesser-skilled individuals with nefarious intentions. Perhaps more significantly, the evolutionary leaps might be made naturally, via flu-infected birds, pigs, even humans. In other words, the research has implications for both terrorism and a catastrophic pandemic. Moreover, several experimental antecedents involving smallpox-like viruses and polio lend credence to the idea that concocting or radically altering viruses to create more lethal or transmissible germs is becoming an easier feat and an accidental byproduct of legitimate research.
The advisory board is debating whether the work, as well as details on how the flu viruses were deliberately mutated, should be published. That is the wrong question. As a practical matter, experimental results are now shared with lightning speed between laboratories, and I know that several leading scientists outside Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs already recognize exactly how these experiments were executed. The genie is out of the bottle: Eager graduate students in virology departments from Boston to Bangkok have convened journal-review debates reckoning exactly how these viral Frankenstein efforts were carried out.
The list of attempts by governments to stifle scientific information is lengthy and marked by failure. I was at a 1982 optical engineering meeting in San Diego that was disrupted by a censorship order handed down by the Ronald Reagan administration's security chief, Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, compelling seizure of about 100 papers. The administration claimed the findings in those mathematics papers would, in Soviet hands, pose an existential threat to the United States -- an assertion that proved laughable when the studies soon saw the light of day. In 2006, George W. Bush's administration tried to block climate change–related presentations by NASA scientist James Hansen; every single one of Hansen's data points swiftly appeared on the Internet.
Rather than trying to censor research because its inevitable release might be harmful, we ought to be having a frank, open discussion about its implications. The correct questions that scientists, national security and political leaders, and the public ought to be asking are: How difficult was it to perform these experiments? Could they be replicated in the hands of criminals or would-be terrorists? What have these experiments shown us about the likelihood that the H5N1 "bird flu" virus will naturally evolve into this terrifying form? Are we safer, or less secure, today due to the post-2001 anthrax-inspired proliferation of high-security biological laboratories?
What Genie Has Popped from Which Bottle?
In 1997, the form of influenza now dubbed H5N1, or avian flu, emerged in Hong Kong, killing six people and forcing the destruction of every chicken in the protectorate. The virus had been circulating in aquatic migratory birds and domestic poultry flocks within mainland China for at least two years, but it was not recognized as a unique entity until the Hong Kong outbreak. The spread of H5N1 was temporarily halted by Hong Kong health official Margaret Chan, who ordered the mass culling of the area's poultry. Chan now serves as director general of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The virus reappeared in Thailand in 2003, killing flocks of chickens and ducks that November and infecting humans in January 2004 in Thailand and Vietnam. The H5N1 virus mutated in 2005 as it spread among various species of birds migrating through northern China, giving avian flu the capacity to infect a far greater range of bird species, as well as mammals -- including human beings. That year, human and animal outbreaks of H5N1 appeared across a vast expanse of the globe, from the southernmost Indonesian islands, up to central Siberia, and as far west as Germany.
By mid-2011, H5N1 had become a seasonal occurrence in a swath of the world spanning 63 countries of Asia, the Pacific Islands, Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and North and West Africa. Since its 2004 reappearance, H5N1 has sickened at least 565 people, killing 331, for an overall mortality rate of 59 percent. The Ebola virus can be more lethal -- as high as 90 percent -- but is not terribly contagious. Rabies, in the absence of vaccination, is 100 percent lethal, but it can only be transmitted through the bite of an animal. It is estimated that in pre-vaccine days, the smallpox virus killed about a third of the people it infected.