Sunshine Recorder

Link: The Bomb Was the Easy Case

Science is known to be fatal; it kills people — this is all but a cliché.  World War I was the chemists’ war: chemists developed chlorine as a bleach and a disinfectant, then turned it into chlorine gas, which flooded (along with other gases) into enemy trenches.  World War II was the physicists’ war: physicists studied atomic fission to understand the constituents of matter, then turned it into the atom bomb.  World War III has several possible scientific sponsors, but the current frontrunners seem to be biologists.  Among other things, while trying to fight infectious diseases, they’ve just published the mutations by which a lethal virus could be spread more widely.  What is it that we haven’t learned? What’s so hard about this?

Last week, Science magazine, after months of deliberations and changed minds and variously expressed opinions, not only published the mutations made in the H5N1 virus, but also discussed the problems raised by humanistic science that can be turned into military technologies. The jargon for these technologies is “dual use.” Dual use.  Can be used for good, can be used to kill, either one. This choice is not new.

The discussion isn’t new either, or easy: for starters, scientific openness vs. national security, ease of replication vs. size of risk, the logistical swamp of previewing publications, the utter impossibility of predicting what science might end up dual-use, the near-impossibility of keeping scientists’ mouths shut. Biologists had in fact learned from the chemists’ and physicists’ wars and had created a board called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to weigh the issues of dual use research.  But the issues truly are insanely complex and the board, though it recommended publication of the H5N1 data, has no settled policies. Biologists have no consensus on oversight of dual use research, said a lawyer at the end of an article in Nature magazine, and governments in the past “have simply kicked the can down the road.”

Wellerstein, on his beautifully researched and written blog, sums up: ”Within the next four decades or so, every university bio lab in the country (and soon after, the world) is probably going to have the capability to make customized flus, plagues, and other nasties.”  He sees no reason to believe that all the biologists at all the labs will self-censor their capabilities. And right now the NSABB will remain stymied on policy.  “Bottom line,” Wellerstein writes: “We’re used to thinking of the bomb as the hard case. It’s actually the easy case. Everything gets a lot harder from here on out.”


The Risks of Dangerous Research: Fears Grow Over Lab-Bred Flu
 “I don’t like to scare people,” says microbiologist Paul Keim. “But the worst-case scenarios here are just enormous.”
Keim, who chairs the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), is reflecting on its unprecedented recommendation to censor two scientific papers describing how to make a more transmissible form of the H5N1 avian flu virus. On 20 December, the board said that although the general conclusions could be published, the papers (currently under review at Nature and Science) should not include “the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm”.
…But the stakes are higher for the H5N1 work, because the altered viruses readily spread between laboratory ferrets breathing the same air. If the same were true in humans, the new strains could combine H5N1’s high death rate —much higher than the 1918 flu [fatality rate of about 59% in confirmed cases]— with seasonal flu’s rapid transmission. Add in uncertainties about the efficacy and availability of vaccines and drugs to combat the virus, and the risk of misuse becomes more frightening than any other case that the board has considered, says NSABB member Kenneth Berns, a microbiologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Read more. 

The Risks of Dangerous Research: Fears Grow Over Lab-Bred Flu

 “I don’t like to scare people,” says microbiologist Paul Keim. “But the worst-case scenarios here are just enormous.”

Keim, who chairs the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), is reflecting on its unprecedented recommendation to censor two scientific papers describing how to make a more transmissible form of the H5N1 avian flu virus. On 20 December, the board said that although the general conclusions could be published, the papers (currently under review at Nature and Science) should not include “the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm”.

…But the stakes are higher for the H5N1 work, because the altered viruses readily spread between laboratory ferrets breathing the same air. If the same were true in humans, the new strains could combine H5N1’s high death rate —much higher than the 1918 flu [fatality rate of about 59% in confirmed cases]— with seasonal flu’s rapid transmission. Add in uncertainties about the efficacy and availability of vaccines and drugs to combat the virus, and the risk of misuse becomes more frightening than any other case that the board has considered, says NSABB member Kenneth Berns, a microbiologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Read more.