Editorial: Thinking after acting

Published in The Hindu on December 26, 2011

The United States government, which funded two teams of scientists to research if the H5N1 influenza virus has the potential to trigger a pandemic, has developed cold feet — after reviewing papers containing detailed descriptions of the lethal strains. The papers have already been sent to two journals, Nature and Science. In an unprecedented move, the government has recommended to the authors and to the editors of the journals that they publish only sanitised versions excising sensitive details of the study. This is a typical instance of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. The results of the study were presented recently at a scientific conference in Malta by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center at Rotterdam, one of the research teams funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). The details were also shared with journalists covering the event. New Scientist and Scientific American reported in detail how the team went about creating the killer virus. According to these reports, the scientists first introduced three mutations to the virus. This was sufficient to kill the ferrets (the best animal models for influenza research), but lacked transmissibility. So they used a time-tested technique to make the pathogens adapt to a new host — taking the virus from a sick ferret and infecting the healthy ones, and repeating the cycle. After the tenth repetition, the virus became infectious and easily transmissible by air. Shockingly, all the five mutations (three created in the lab and two produced naturally) are found in nature. Their combined presence in the same strain was all it took to make the virus highly contagious and lethal in ferrets. This, in turn, indicates the ease with which the virus could spread among humans.

Though people can misuse this information, there is a compelling need for scientists to be aware of these mutations so that effective drugs and vaccines can be developed. Little wonder that both editors have reacted strongly to censorship and demanded that a mechanism be put in place to ensure that bona fide scientists have full and complete access to the results. This has finally prompted the U.S. government to act. It is also working on an oversight policy to evaluate dual-use research proposals prior to approval and funding. But the biggest concern is the risk of the new strain escaping from the labs. According to Nature, scientists working on SARS at four “high-containment labs” in China, Taiwan, and Singapore were “infected.” And the 395 bio-safety breaches in the U.S. between 2003 and 2009 could have resulted in the “accidental release of dangerous pathogens from high-containment labs.”