False Security

From NPR, March 30, 2012

The Obama administration has announced a new policy to handle the risks posed by legitimate biological research that could, in the wrong hands, threaten the public.

The move comes in response to a huge debate over recent experiments on bird flu virus that got funding from the National Institutes of Health. Critics say the work created mutant viruses that could potentially be dangerous for people, or give terrorists a road map for making a bioweapon.

A committee that advises the government called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is again meeting Friday to discuss those flu studies. Late last year, it recommended keeping some details secret. But a panel of experts, including flu virologists assembled by the World Health Organization, called for full publication.

The new policy is aimed at preventing this kind of controversy from happening in the future. It covers federally-funded research — both ongoing work and future proposals. And it calls for special reviews of work that involves a list of 15 particularly nasty pathogens and toxins, including highly pathogenic bird flu virus, anthrax, and Ebola.

Funding agencies will have to evaluate certain kinds of experiments to see if they pose special risks. The idea is “to really upfront ask the questions: Should they be done? And if so, under what conditions should they be done,” explains Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH.

If an agency wants to fund an experiment that might yield potentially dangerous information, Fauci says, scientists could be asked to hold back on publishing details in order to receive funding.

Or, in some cases, the work might need to be classified. Fauci notes that the NIH does not do classified studies. “We would have to refer it to an agency that does classified research because we don’t,” he says.

This sets a very dangerous precedent. There are lots of types of biological research “that could, in the wrong hands, threaten the public”. Although the intent now may be to restrict this measure to certain types of research, once the precedent is set, there is no guarantee that it will not be extended to others. Who will decide what knowledge could or could not “threaten the public”? If it is politicians (or scientists who depend on the patronage of politicians), then almost by definition, this measure will be politicised. One can get whatever type of research one wants banned by picking the right members of the committee that will do the banning. There are recent of examples of this, for those whose memories go back a few years.

It is also disturbing that there is still no discussion of State sponsored bioweapons research, especially in China. There are many countries with the capacity to do this research without any help from the US. If this research in the US is classified, the general public in the US will have no idea what is or is not possible, what is or is not a threat.

I have a great deal of respect for the US military’s ability to fight conventional wars. However, in my opinion, their work on biological weapons defense is extremely poor. The DoD has demonstrated no grasp of the strategic threat involved nor any particular expertise in developing countermeasures. To be fair, their ability to detect emerging pandemic flu threats is apparently better than the CDC’s as they were the ones who first reported pH1N1. But this is not nearly enough.

The CDC conducted the same types of experiments as Fouchier and Kawaoka but failed to reveal the threat of a high CFR H5N1 pandemic. It would be a mistake to rely on the CDC for this research.

The DoD has USAMRIID, but it is not clear that they have the breadth or depth of personnel to cover all potential agents. Further, scientists there will be hampered if they cannot discuss their work with their colleagues at other institutions (as would happen if the work is classified). Given that the anthrax attacks apparently originated from a scientist at USAMRIID, it is not obvious why entrusting this group with work on dangerous pathogens is safer than to let this work be done by NIH scientists.

In my opinion, this ruling is tantamount to hearing the noise of breaking glass in your house and then pulling the covers over your head. Hiding from the threat will not save you. As scary as it is, your best option is to develop a strategy to defeat it, which may involve confronting the threat head on.

We could have delayed the threat of biological weapons by controlling the sale of gene synthesis machines to foreign countries. But no-one in the US government, including apparently the entire leadership at DoD, seems to have understood the risk of proliferating this technology. Given that the ability to create a high CFR pandemic virus already exists and has been actively pursued by countries like China, the question now is: what is likely to provide our best defense? Part of the answer will involve politically unpalatable decentralisation and the incorporation of citizen resilience in national defense policy. But part of the answer will come from a free exchange of information among the best scientists. We cannot develop countermeasures to a threat if we do not know what it is.

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