By Professor Wendy Barclay, Chair in Influenza Virology, Imperial College London. Wendy spoke at last week’s Society of Biology Policy Lates debate on dual-use bioscience. The debate is summarised in a Storify.
H5N1 is a worrisome strain of bird flu that currently does not spread between us because of the ‘species barrier’ created by virus-host mismatches. We don’t really understand the strength of this barrier and how exactly influenza strains breach it to go on to cause pandemics. Do viruses that transmit between humans retain their propensity to cause serious disease and will the vaccines we have protect us if they do? Answering these questions is important for scientific understanding and public health, but necessarily involves genetically engineering synthetic viruses, which may be harmful to us or other animals.
In 2011 two independent influenza research laboratories announced they were ready to publish the results of such experiments in Nature and Science; but realizing that information from the studies could potentially be misused by bioterrorists, the journals’ editors sent the manuscripts to the US federal NSABB biosecurity committee. NSABB, and others, questioned whether this type of research should be performed at all, and if it is, whether access to the information it generates should be restricted?
As an influenza expert, my purpose here is to educate the public audience to enable them to weigh up for themselves the risks and benefits of sharing this type of information so they can contribute to the debate in an informed manner.
Bioterrorists could use published scientific information to generate a synthetic virus, although outside a professional laboratory this would be challenging, and companies who supply synthetic DNA now typically refuse to supply sequences derived from known dual-use pathogens. But, in reality there are natural viruses much more suited for bioterrorism than artificial H5N1 (the H2N2 virus of the 1957 Asian influenza pandemic can still be found in many lab freezers!). Transmission of the ferret-adapted H5N1 viruses was much less efficient than the recent swine influenza of 2009; moreover their virulence in recipient ferrets was mild and in humans is unknown. They would not make for reliable bioweapons.
The benefits of H5N1 experiments should not be overlooked due to security concerns. The ferret experiments show that H5N1 viruses could indeed evolve a capacity for mammalian transmission, justifying the large sums of money already spent on developing precautionary vaccines and therapeutics. Moreover, describing the basic traits an avian influenza virus must acquire to cross that species barrier informs surveillance so our speed of response when nature throws up such a mutant is improved.
Importantly, we can also now improve vaccine coverage in the face of a new pandemic by having suitable synthetic viruses to test vaccines against. More specifically, we can now engineer live attenuated H5 vaccines based on knowledge from the ferret transmission experiments. Vaccines have previously failed because the attenuated viruses did not replicate sufficiently in the human nose to induce robust immune response, but now we understand why.
More generally the influenza research means we can now address related questions, such as understanding why SARS transmitted poorly compared to other human coronaviruses and whether the novel MERS virus or Malaysian Nipah pose serious pandemic threats.
So given the relative benefits and risks, who should have access to the scientific information that answers these questions? I would argue, ‘everyone’. Influenza recognizes no national boundaries. People living in countries with little research or vaccine manufacturing capacity are at as much risk as those of us in wealthy countries. Surveillance and protection measures must occur in these regions using the very best information available, particularly as avian influenza viruses already decimate poultry populations in some of these countries. Also, isolates on which influenza research depends are often obtained from less wealthy countries; we cannot expect to utilize them for our own benefit without sharing everything we learn and if we do so the supply may soon dry up!
Why should we presume that the basic understanding of influenza viruses will only be advanced by approved influenza specialists employed in government funded laboratories or on ‘approved’ lists? Scientific breakthroughs often arise from thinking outside of the box, or noticing the unexpected break with dogma. Fleming did not aim to discover penicillin, he was just open-minded.
Finally, in today’s age of shared information how would we enforce censorship anyway? There is a danger that those who wish to know the information will obtain it illegally whilst those who might benefit will lose out. In contrast, sharing information will dispel the public suspicion of governments and scientists and expand the forum for discussing biosecurity issues more openly.