Last summer, scientists performed an experiment that could have been ripped from the script of a Hollywood thriller. Sealed off in high-tech laboratories in the Netherlands and Wisconsin, researchers transformed one of the world’s most deadly viruses, transmissible by direct contact, into versions capable of spreading through the air.
Unlike in the movies, news of the lab-made viruses was not delivered as a threat, and the scientists doing the work weren’t henchmen of an evil dictator or members of a shadowy terrorist organization. Instead, the researchers were on the good-guy team — respected academics investigating how a type of flu virus that typically targets birds might become contagious in people.
Though the avian flu virus known as H5N1 infects and kills mostly birds — including chickens, turkeys and waterfowl — it has sickened more than 600 people worldwide since an outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997, killing about half of them. The virus doesn’t pass easily from person to person even with close contact, let alone through the air. Most victims contracted it after handling infected birds or from contaminated environments.
But the Netherlands and Wisconsin research teams created their airborne versions of the virus in attempts to determine whether the virus could become easily transmissible among people. Knowing more about the virus’s potential to make such a change might help public health workers spot a budding pandemic, and even point to ways to head off such a global catastrophe.
Yet even though the researchers undertook the work for noble reasons, they soon found themselves as embroiled in intrigue and worldwide controversy as any fictional villains. Since the Dutch researchers announced the work at a scientific meeting in Malta in September, their saga has featured closed-door meetings, security reviews, publishing restrictions, a voluntary halt on the research, a media frenzy that included a flurry of opinion pieces by other scientists and even threats of imprisonment. The Wisconsin team’s story has played out similarly, only with slightly less drama. At issue is the danger posed by the lab-made versions of air-transmissible H5N1 and who should know how they were created.
Each team submitted a paper to a major scientific journal — one to Nature and one to Science — containing step-by-step instructions for turning H5N1 into an airborne virus, including information about the changes in the genetic instruction book important for the transformation. Initially, a U.S. government advisory board charged with determining whether the research was fit to print decided that open publication posed too great a risk of misuse, recommending the publication of severely redacted versions. Critics siding with the board warned that terrorists or rogue nations could use the information to re-create the viruses and unleash them on the world.
Proponents of publishing argued that public health workers need to know which mutations spell trouble in case those mutations are spotted in the wild. At the end of March, the board reversed its decision, ruling — after some clarifications — that the benefits of information sharing outweighed the risks.
One paper has now been published in a full-length version in Nature (SN Online: 5/2/12); as of mid-May, the second was still in the peer review and editing process. (Editor’s note: The second paper was published in the June 22 Science. Click here for news story.) But the controversy the papers ignited has made flu virus research, and the issues of national security and data sharing that come along with it, topics of debate over lab benches and dinner tables.
Before it was clear that the papers would ever see print, they were called “the two most famous unpublished manuscripts in modern life science history” by Michael Osterholm, director of the Minnesota Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance in Minneapolis.