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Bird flu: Not a decision for the people to make, bioethicist says

Scientists who are experts at understanding how the flu works are convening in New York this week to make a very important decision.  They are going to decide whether to restart potentially risky research on flu viruses that has been on hold for many months.

Some argue that before they begin there ought to be a lot more involvement of the public in granting permission for this work.  I completely disagree.  There are plenty of oversight groups in place already that are charged with protecting public health and safety in the U.S. and worldwide.

Still, I think a few strict requirements ought to be in place before the flu manipulators get back in business in their labs.  They are needed to help protect the scientists, you, me and everyone else on this planet should the dangerous bugs they seek to create get in the wrong hands or places.

Last January a huge controversy broke out over the wisdom of publishing two very detailed papers in leading scientific journals that involved the engineering of H5N1 bird flu viruses by labs in Wisconsin and the Netherlands.  H5N1 normally infects ducks, and it can wipe out flocks of chickens. It occasionally infects people – about 600 so far and it’s killed 358 of them. Scientists are afraid slight changes in its genes would make it more infectious to people.

They’ve been tinkering with the virus to see what it would take.  Each study showed how to create flu strains that were easier to transmit than the ones that usually occur in nature.  Ferrets – the animals that most closely resemble humans when it comes to catching flu -- could get infected by one of the engineered viruses simply through breathing and sneezing.

No physical contact was required. 

This work suggested ways in which nasty, highly contagious forms of the flu evolve naturally every once in a while and shows why pandemic flu clobbers human beings every couple of decades.   But, the papers also showed how to artificially gin up highly transmissible strains -- something that might be of keen interest to terrorists and other bad guys. 

Many people, including me, wondered about the wisdom of publishing formulas for making highly contagious types of flu in a world where accidents and attacks are both all too real.  Censorship, however, turned out to make no sense.  By the time a paper is ready to go into a major scientific journal, secrecy has long since left the building.

When the stink over publishing broke out seven months ago, more than 30 of the world’s flu mavens agreed to put a hold on their research until the publication battle had been resolved.  Originally the self-imposed moratorium was to last 60 days. Even though both papers have been published, the moratorium has gone on for more than 6 months.  Many of those who do this work say it is time to get back to the business of understanding the basic biology of the flu virus.

Why do risky research on the flu?  Those who want to argue that it is important to understand how flu viruses can become more easily transmissible, or lethal, or both.  There is a lot of swine flu and avian flu around every year but luckily it comes in forms not easy to transmit from animals to people or among people.  But, with the right mutations, as the two published papers showed, the flu can get a lot more contagious.  Add in a few more changes and you can make the flu much more deadly.  If we knew from lab manipulations what strains of flu were the worst, we could monitor for them and maybe even get a leg up on creating a vaccine if one suddenly popped up someplace.

That makes sense.  What would also make sense would be to restrict the number of scientists and labs and locations doing this risky work, having hyper-strict safety rules that everyone around the world is expected to follow and a system of inspection to make sure no especially awful bugs can escape and that no one can break in to let them out. 

We don’t need public hearings to get this done.  We need specific rules.

There are requirements in place now for doing risky biological work.  But they are not tough enough for mucking around with a killer with a proven history like the flu.  Sadly, more restrictions are needed in a world where terrorists, crazies and accidents happen. 

The moratorium needs to end.  Figuring out more about the flu in the lab makes us all safer.  Ending it means knowing when experts agree that the experiments are needed, all information about such research is encoded and restricted and the labs where risky flu work is done are safe and secure. 

Related links:

How mutant bird flu goes airborne

Second controversial bird flu study shows its dangers

Experts agree to let scientists publish H5N1 studies