The latest on the doomsday virus

Today’s NYT editorial updates us on the current status on the impending publication of two papers describing mutations in the flu virus that make it lethal in mammals (ferrets). The authors of these papers, as well as a variety of other scientists in this field, are keen to publish the details of these mutations. The rationale is that scientists and public health officials in countries where bird flu viruses arise that can infect mammals need to know which mutations to look for in order to try to control the spread of such potentially deadly strains. The arguments against release of these details are first, that bioterrorists could use the info to try and make these viruses, and second, that laboratories around the world will start experimenting with these strains, and sloppy work will inevitably set some deadly strains loose in the public. The NYT is not reassured about the latest developments:

“Based on statements by the lead scientist that the virus retained its lethality, we urged in January that it be destroyed or studied only in a few high-containment laboratories, and that nothing be published about the experiments or, at a minimum, that details that might help a terrorist be redacted. In March, after the lead scientist, in a turnabout, said his new virus did not actually spread all that easily and was not lethal to ferrets when it did so, we called for clarification by an independent arbiter, like the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. That is the group of nongovernmental experts that originally voted 22 to 0 to recommend that the paper be published only after details on specific mutations and how they were made were redacted. Now that board has changed its mind. In late March, after reviewing a revised version of the paper and grilling the Dutch scientist, it voted 12 to 6 to recommend publication with none of the details excised. 

Board members told us that the new virus appeared less lethal than they first thought; the benefits of letting scientists around the world keep an eye out for the specific mutations in nature appeared greater than they first thought; and the risk that a terrorist would use the information seemed minimal, judging from a briefing they got from intelligence officials. Many members also felt boxed in when federal officials said that redacting the details would harm America’s relations with nations that wanted full access.

The board’s new verdict is not wholly reassuring. The members had little time to digest a revised version of the Dutch paper and other new data, and they heard what the board’s leading influenza expert, Michael Osterholm, described in a letter to the National Institutes of Health and board members as a very “one-sided” presentation that was “designed” to push the board to reverse itself without hearing from independent experts with contrary views. Even if the new virus is not highly lethal, board members say that might change should the virus escape confinement and recombine with other viruses to become both highly lethal and easily transmissible.”

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