The virus H5N1 is an emerging epidemic threat. The virus H5N1, otherwise known as the bird or avian flu, is highly virulent and transmissible in avians, although a small number of human cases have occurred in people who have significant contact with poultry. As of 2012, this virus has infected around 600 humans and killed more than half. Compared to the 1918 influenza pandemic that had a fatality rate of only 2% and killed as many as 100 million people, the H5N1 virus would have catastrophic effects if it was able to be transmitted through humans (An Engineered Doomsday).
In 2011, two scientists working in two different locations developed highly pathogenic and airborne transmissible influenza A virus H5N1 strains with only a few mutations from the natural strain. This raised many concerns within the scientific community and caused a debate that continues today. The threat of accidental release of the virus and bioterrorism makes some scientists feel that this type of research should not be done and results should not be published.
Other scientists feel that this type of research would provide a better understanding of pandemic flu viruses and help with prevention and response efforts. Many also feel that restricting this type of research would hamper scientific progress. Weighing the benefits versus the risks, scientists should be allowed to conduct and publish research on engineering virulent flu strains.
One of the main reasons for the opposition to performing this type of research is the threat of accidental release of the virus. The accidental release could lead to human infection and a global pandemic.
To avoid accidental release, any research with virulent flu strains such as the H5N1 virus should be performed in a biosafety level 3 lab. Appropriate personal protection equipment, controlled airflow, restricted and controlled access, etc. would ensure that the necessary precautions are taken to mitigate this threat (Biosafety Levels 1, 2, 3 & 4). Additionally, there are policies and boards, such as the United States Government Policy for Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), that function to analyze and guide researchers and research funders on this type of research. They ensure that this type of research is reviewed, risks and benefits are assessed, and mitigation plans are established before it is conducted (Resnik, David B.). If any safety or ethical issues exist, they are examined and rectified before research is begun.
A major reason against publishing this type of research is the potential for the data to be used by bioterrorists. The fear is that a nefarious party will recreate the strain based on information in the published papers and use it for harm. Numerous papers have been published that could be used for bioterrorism but thus far have not. Such examples include papers on enhancing the human smallpox virus, engineering a polio virus, and how to recreate the 1918 Spanish influenza virus (Resnik, David B.). There is no evidence that publishing research on engineering virulent flu strains would lead to bioterrorist attacks. A seemingly reasonable compromise would be to publish the papers only in redacted form. In the case of the H5N1 publications, this is what the NSABB first proposed. But after further consideration, they decided that the papers can be published in their full form. They concluded that these specific papers could significantly benefit public health and that publishing them did not pose a significant risk to society because the information they contain cannot be readily applied to make a bioweapon.
Restricting or censoring publications would be a way to stop the release of this sensitive information. However, if publishing were restricted or censored this could violate the First Amendment of the United States. US courts have historically sided against government restrictions on free speech. Suggestions have been made to redact certain parts of papers that contain key details that would enable someone to create a bioweapon while the results are made available only to certain parties and individuals (Resnik, David B.). This seems to be a decent compromise but many issues arise with this approach. First, there is no legal way to insist papers be published only in redacted form, the governing agency can only request this. This would put pressure on the scientists themselves to agree to publish in redacted form out of fear of repercussions and the risk of not obtaining government funding for future research. This method would also require that there be a system set up for approved parties to access the publication in full. Developing this type of system would be difficult for numerous reasons. Firstly, the guidelines for determining who is allowed to access the information would be difficult. These parties would need to be thoroughly checked and important factors like the number of people with access, their diversity, and their intentions would need to be carefully examined before being approved. Secondly, there would have to be a highly secure system for approved parties to be able to access the publications. Thirdly, there would need to be an enforcement agency with the authority to impose punishments if sensitive information is leaked. Lastly, there would need to be international cooperation and cohesion if a system like this was to be implemented for it to be effective. At this time it does not seem plausible that these requirements can be met to allow the restriction of publication to only certain parties.
Scientists researching engineering virulent flu strains believe their research is highly necessary. Influenza viruses can mutate and evolve to become infectious and transmissible by air in humans like the H1N1, or swine flu did in 2009. While the H1N1 epidemic had a mortality rate of 0.02% (Sundar S. Shrestha et. al.), only further research can predict how virulent other flu strains, such as H5N1, could become. Seasonal influenza kills about 500,000 people each year. Pandemic influenza viruses appeared in 1957, 1968, and 2009 (Morens, D. M., Taubenberger, J. K., & Fauci, A. S). If the past is any indicator of the future, another pandemic is approaching. By engineering viruses and studying them in detail, we can have a better understanding of pandemic and potentially pandemic flu viruses. With a better understanding of these viruses, vaccines can be made to prepare for future outbreaks. The research will also help scientists recognize and anticipate viruses evolving into threats to humans. Being able to recognize sequences of human infectious flu viruses will allow scientists to improve surveillance.
Scientific advancement is a dynamic process, with new developments being built from previous findings. This relationship is possible because of the values of openness and inquiry that the scientific community shares. Openness allows scientists to share results as well as methods and data. Inquiry allows scientists to criticize and debate theories and ideas. Restricting a certain type of research, such as engineering virulent flu strains, puts restraints on this unique relationship. Opposers of engineering virulent flu strain research contest that there would be no benefits to it. They believe the claims for improved surveillance and response are empty. They reason that sequences of engineered viruses most likely would not match sequences of future naturally transmissible strains and that there are no effective methods for flu surveillance. They also believe that significant government funding would be needed for monitoring (Pelcyger, D.). Although the exact benefits of these types of studies may not be known, performing and publishing them allows them to become the building blocks of the next great unknown scientific breakthrough (Yang, J.).
When deciding on this magnitude, it is important to consider each stakeholder and how they would be impacted by the decision. The major stakeholders, in this case, are the general population, the scientists performing this type of research, as well as the scientific community as a whole. Not allowing scientists to conduct and publish research on engineering virulent flu strains would impact the general population by eliminating the risk of potential release of the virus. It would also be doing them a disservice by not being as prepared as we could be if there were a global epidemic that could have been prevented or mitigated had prior research taken place. Not publishing these studies would eliminate the potential of the information falling into the hands of parties that are interested in using it for harm. However, it would also hinder the scientific community because the knowledge could not be shared and developed. It would also make related research slow as the scientists would be afraid of the stigma associated with unflavored or unapproved research subjects. Allowing scientists to conduct and publish research on engineering virulent flu strains would impact the public by improving public health. Scientists would be allowed to share and develop their research which could lead to truly groundbreaking and lifesaving advances. With each aspect considered, the most fitting option would be to allow scientists to conduct and publish research on engineering virulent flu strains.