When flu scientist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University in Rotterdam announced in September that he had made a highly contagious, supervirulent form of the bird-flu virus, a long chain of political events unfolded, mostly out of the public eye. Fouchier told European virologists at a meeting in Malta that he had created a form of the H5N1 avian flu -- which is naturally extremely dangerous to both birds and mammals, but only contagious via birds -- that was both 60 percent fatal to infected animals and readily transmitted through the air between ferrets, which are used as experimental stand-ins for human beings. The University of Wisconsin's Yoshihiro Kawaoka, one of the world's top influenza experts, then announced hours later that his lab had achieved a similar feat. Given that in some settings H5N1 has killed more than 80 percent of the people that it has infected, presumably as a result of their contact with an ailing bird, Fouchier's announcement set the scientific community and governments worldwide into conniption fits, with visions of pandemics dancing in their heads.
Within government circles around the world, the announcement has highlighted a dilemma: How do you balance the universal mandate for scientific openness against the fear that terrorists or rogue states might follow the researchers' work -- using it as catastrophic cookbooks for global influenza contagion? Concern reached such heights that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise visit to Geneva on Dec. 7, addressing the review summit on biological weapons. No American official of her stature had attended the bioweapons summits in decades, and Clinton's presence stunned observers.
Clinton told the Palais des Nations audience that the threat of biological weapons could no longer be ignored because "there are warning signs," including "evidence in Afghanistan that … 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.'" (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the terrorist group's Yemeni-based affiliate and perhaps its most aggressive arm today, with connections to a number of ambitious plots.)
Then, in what has widely been interpreted as an allusion to the superflu experiments, Clinton added, "The nature of the problem is evolving. The advances in science and technology make it possible to both prevent and cure more diseases, but also easier for states and nonstate actors to develop biological weapons. 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. Even as it becomes easier to develop these weapons, it remains extremely difficult … to detect them, because almost any biological research can serve dual purposes. The same equipment and technical knowledge used for legitimate research to save lives can also be used to manufacture deadly diseases."
By the end of 2011, few governments or scientific committees were satisfied with the actions that had been taken to date to limit publication of the methods Fouchier and Kawaoka deployed, and most were frankly frightened. The Fouchier episode laid bare the emptiness of biological-weapons prevention programs on the global, national, and local levels. Along with several older studies that are now garnering fresh attention, it has revealed that the political world is completely unprepared for the synthetic-biology revolution.