After months of controversy, the journal Nature has published the details of an experiment describing how the avian flu can be modified into a human-contagious form.
The publication has prompted critics to warn of a possible human disaster, should the details of study get into the wrong hands or the mutant virus accidentally escape the lab. And this incident highlights growing concerns about unchecked scientific inquiry, the mounting potential for academic censorship, and the ongoing development of increasingly powerful and dangerous biotechnologies.
The research was conducted by Yoshihiro Kawaoka and his team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to determine the likelihood of the H5N1 influenza virus naturally mutating on its own in the wild. Their findings were alarming. The research team discovered that the virus was as little as one mutational step away from being able to spread effectively between other animals through airborne transmission. The virus is highly pathogenic and often lethal in humans, but in its current incarnation cannot spread efficiently between people.
To determine the possibility of increased human transmissibility, Kawaoka created a hybrid virus by mutating H5N1's haemagglutinin (HA) gene, which produces the protein that the virus uses to stick itself to host cells. His team then exposed this updated virus to ferrets in separate cages to see if it could spread — which it did after just four mutations.
This is of particular concern because some Middle Eastern strains of H5N1 are already recognizing human receptors. This finding suggests that a more devastating version of the virus — one that could affect humans — could be as little as one stabilizing mutation away.
Supporters of Kawaoka's work claim that this information is crucial for a number of reasons, including pre-emptive awareness, and most importantly, by offering a blueprint to help create countermeasures should such a mutation actually happen in the future. It also points to the importance of ongoing research in these areas to prevent the onset of other viruses, including such pathogens as SARS. As virologist Jeremy Farrar noted in a Nature article about today's announcement, "this work reminds us just how vulnerable we potentially are to relatively small changes." It's for this reason that Farrar and a number of other scientists support the work and the ongoing freedom that scientists have to pursue seemingly dangerous work.
But not all agree. Writing in an editorial in the journal Science last January, virologist Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota claimed that, "The desire to disseminate the entirety of the methods and results of the two H5N1 studies in the general scientific literature will not materially increase our ability to protect the public's health from a future H5N1 pandemic." Other scientists worry that bioterrorists could use the information to weaponize the disease. Others simply fear that an accident could happen in which the virus gets away from researchers and infects the general population.
And according to a report in Wired magazine, many prominent virologists are afraid to criticize the findings publicly for fear of retribution from such groups as the National Institutes of Health and other funders. It's quite possible, therefore, that many concerned scientists are keeping a tight lip on the matter, for fear of a backlash and an end to their funding.
With today's publication of the study in Nature, the genie is officially out of the bottle. The future is unclear, both in terms of the benefits and threats that such open knowledge may bring. Moreover, when considering the temporary moratorium on similar research that was put into place several months ago, it's clear that this issue is far from settled.
The full publication of the study in Nature can be found here.