From Jurassic Park to H5N1: Is There a Human Threat?

| November 28, 2012 | 0 Comments

Image credit: US Department of State.

Stories involving the unforeseen consequences of the manipulation of biological material have captured the public’s imagination for decades. From Jurassic Park to 12 Monkeys, this general narrative has found its way into innumerable works of fiction across many modes of entertainment.

This past summer, after six months of debate, two of the most prominent scientific journals, Nature and Science, published a pair of studies that vaguely resemble this fictional narrative, identifying mutations and other biological modifications that significantly elevate the contagiousness of H5N1, or bird flu (1,2). The set of articles sparked a heated discussion—among public health officials, scientists, and the public alike—regarding both public access to and the appropriateness of potentially dangerous research on infectious disease. Although much of the concern surrounding studies of this nature is warranted, I argue that the positive applications of this research to address natural threats of biological agents far outweigh the possibility of its human abuse, and thus scientists and public health officials should err on the side of scientific freedom when considering restrictions on research and its public access.

The marked trepidation over these studies stems in particular from the intersection of three principal factors—the unparalleled lethality of H5N1, the degree of success in elevating rates of infection, and the possible misuse of this knowledge by bioterrorists. H5N1, though currently limited in its natural infection rates, has proven to be uniquely fatal, killing roughly 60% of the 566 individuals who have been infected thus far (3). In addition to this natural deadliness, both of these studies, through some form of genetic modification, were able to render H5N1 significantly more transmissible: the study published in Nature demonstrated that the viral combination of H5N1 with swine flu can bring about a contagious pandemic strain, and the Science study likewise showed that the pandemic potential of the virus can develop simply through the joint appearance of four different mutations, two of which already exist in nature (4). The highly pathogenic qualities of this virus, coupled with such amplified rates of infection, have driven the unease and criticism surrounding these studies. The final facet of concern is tied less to the pathogenic nature of these biological modifications and more to public access to this research, with many biosecurity officials arguing that this publically available research equips terrorists with the blueprints needed to manufacture biological weapons with unprecedented killing potential.

While these two studies have captured the public’s attention in recent months, research on potentially pandemic pathogens (PPPs) in fact extends well beyond the topical and temporal scope of these two cases. A recent article by Lynn Klotz and Edward Sylvester identifies at least forty-two labs and research centers, including those working on mutated forms of H5N1, that directly handle PPPs (5). Michael Baram, a professor of law and public health at Boston University, has echoed this overall observation, noting that “thousands of projects are conducted at hundreds of university laboratories…on the deadliest pathogens” (6). And indeed, many of these projects eventually find their way into broadly accessible scientific journals. Importantly, the prevalence of potentially hazardous pathogenic research gives rise to public health concerns related not only to intentional acts of bioterrorism but also to unintentional incidents of contamination. This past May, for example, a laboratory worker at San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center was exposed to a rare strain of bacteria, prompting his death from meningitis just 17 hours after his first symptoms appeared; one can easily imagine analogous scenarios involving a mutated strain of H5N1 in place of the contaminating bacteria in this instance (7).

These fears and scenarios, though emotionally salient, overestimate the man-made threats—bioterrorism and contamination—while overlooking and undervaluing the more obvious and pressing threat: a natural pandemic. In a public statement urging for a more holistic approach in combating bioterrorism, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation contrasts the dearth of recent deaths from bioterrorism with the world-wide devastation caused by natural infectious diseases: “To put this in perspective, since 2000 bioterrorism has killed 5 Americans. In the same time period, influenza-related deaths alone have likely exceeded 300,000 based on CDC estimates, and other natural infectious diseases have killed hundreds of thousands more” (8). It is precisely this natural threat from pathogens that studies on H5N1 are designed to control, and examining the transmissibility of H5N1, precisely as these recent studies do, allows infectious disease scientists to better track, predict, prevent, and treat the spread of the pathogen in the event of a natural pandemic.

This simple argument of relative benefit only scratches the surface of the body of arguments mobilized for the continuation of this brand of research. From creating disincentives for research on deadly biological agents and curbing scientific collaboration, to failing to recognize the unexpectedness of scientific research and violating the spirit of free information, there a number of arguments for why proposed restrictions on research of this nature have a wide range of negative consequences across an equally wide range of levels. Even so, this cost-benefit analysis alone—contrasting the enormous window for possible benefits with the narrow window for possible detriments—should be enough to give scientists and public health officials significant pause before implementing research-constraining policies.

Although it is undoubtedly important to both monitor bioterrorism and oversee laboratory safety, focusing exclusively on these human-initiated threats at the expense of scientists’ ability to research, monitor, and respond to natural pandemics is misguided. Indeed, overwhelming fears of bioterrorism alongside fluke contaminations make for great cinema—they don’t, however, translate quite as cleanly into sensible research policy.


Sources:

  1. [1] Herfst, Sander. “Airborne transmission of influenza A/H5N1 virus between ferrets.” Science 336 (2012): 1534–1541. Online at: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6088/1534.full
  2. [2] Imai, Makaki. “Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets.” Nature 486 (2012): 420–428. Online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22722205?dopt=Abstract
  3. [3] World Health Organization. “Cumulative number of confirmed human cases for avian influenza A(H5N1) reported to WHO, 2003-2011.” 2011. Online at: http://www.who.int/influenza/human_animal_interface/EN_GIP_LatestCumulativeNumberH5N1cases.pdf
  4. [4] Enserink, Martin. “Public at Last, H1N1 Study Offers Insight Into Virus’s Possible Path to Pandemic.” Science 336 (2010): 1494-1497. Online at: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6088/1494.full?sid=efb8e2b6-6552-428a-95c7-8f453e83c967
  5. [5] Klotz, Lynn and Edward Sylvester. “The unacceptable risks of a man-made pandemic.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 2012. Online at: http://thebulletin.org/web-edition/features/the-unacceptable-risks-of-man-made-pandemic
  6. [6] Baram, Michael. “Biotechnological Research on the Most Dangerous Pathogens: Challenges for Risk Governance and Safety Management.” Safety Science Journal 47 (2009): 890-898. Online at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1313862
  7. [7] Miller, Greg. “Death of California Researcher Spurs Investigation.” ScienceInside. 2012. Online at:http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2012/05/death-of-california-researcher.html
  8. [8] Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Weapons: Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “Public Statement.” 2010. Online at: http://old.armscontrolcenter.org/policy/biochem/articles/Biological%20Threats%20-%20A%20Matter%20of%20Balance.pdf

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