The proliferation of high-security labs means a great deal more than the mere construction of physical buildings. Where 10 years ago a finite pool of predominantly senior scientists toiled in such facilities, today thousands of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, technicians, and senior researchers work in facilities stocked with humankind's worst microbial foes. Accidents have occurred with alarming regularity since the lab proliferation commenced, as I have detailed in my book. The facilities also constitute locations wherein individuals could theoretically execute experiments to produce supergerms without risking harm to themselves or others, regardless of whether the intent were noble, as appears to be the case for Fouchier and Kawaoka, or whether the intent were evil, as was the case with those responsible for the anthrax mailings.
Since 2005, several flu experiments conducted under BSL-3 conditions have raised eyebrows, as critics have charged the work should have been done inside the far more difficult but secure BSL-4 conditions. The original 1918 virus was "revived" from a long-frozen human body and grown inside a BSL-3 lab. Experiments were done on the 1918 virus in an effort to discover what genes made it so lethal. And the research that the CDC team, Fouchier, and Kawaoka performed on the H5N1 virus was all done in BSL-3 labs.
In September, when news of the Fouchier work started to appear in science magazines, Thomas Inglesby of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh told New Scientist, "Small mistakes in biosafety could have terrible global consequences." His Pittsburgh colleague D.A. Henderson concurred: "The potential for escape of that virus is staggering."
According to the FBI, the culprit behind the 2001 anthrax mailings was Bruce Ivins, who worked in the U.S. Army's BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs in Maryland. Whether or not the FBI caught the right man -- a point of controversy among scientists -- it remains extraordinary that the response to what the agency calls "Amerithrax" is the creation of more such facilities in which more "Ivins" might toil.
The questions that arise from these H5N1 experiments have nothing to do with publication of the Fouchier and Kawaoka papers. We should be asking what we can do to ensure that such terrible man-made viruses never accidentally escape their laboratory confines or are deliberately released. And we should heed the question posed in the recently released Hollywood thriller Contagion when a Homeland Security character queries a CDC scientist:
"Is there any way someone could weaponize the bird flu? Is that what we're looking at?"
"Someone doesn't have to weaponize the bird flu," the CDC scientist responds, "The birds are doing that."