Whatever Should We Do About These New Biotechnology Capabilities?

I've held onto this nifty comic for 30 years, knowing it would come in handy some day.

I’ve held onto this nifty comic for 30 years, knowing it would come in handy some day.

My high school days were filled with intrigue and controversy at the national level. On the political front, the Watergate scandal was playing out, with Nixon resigning in the summer between my junior and senior years. Another drama was also playing out at that time, but I only became fully aware of it a few years after its most dramatic events. In July of 1974, only a month before the Nixon resignation, a remarkable publication (pdf) appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. First, the paper is remarkable for its lack of an author byline. The members of the committee who authored the publication are listed at the very end. More remarkable still is that the publication marked the announcement of a voluntary moratorium by biological scientists. Several types of constructs using newly developed gene-splicing capabilities would not be attempted until the group had more fully studied the risks involved and come up with a plan for mitigating these risks.

Just under a year later, a follow-up publication (pdf) in the same journal appeared. This time there was an author list (and they finally let a woman join the authors–Maxine Singer had been involved in the discussions all along but was not listed in the 1974 paper). The risk mitigation strategy proposed in this paper has set the stage for the bulk of the work with recombinant DNA that has followed (and which allowed me to get a PhD in Molecular Biology in 1983). In the 1975 paper, Paul Berg and colleagues described a graduated level of biological and physical containment of organisms generated in recombinant DNA experiments, with the level of containment based on the relative risk perceived for the new DNA combinations that were being generated.

It should be noted that the concept of working with dangerous biological organisms was not new at all. Infectious diseases have been studied throughout the history of medicine and so the concept of biological containment of dangerous pathogens was not new to these scientists. They relied on these established practices of containment, which have continued to evolve into the current containment guidelines such as those published by the Centers for Disease Control (pdf) for containing pathogens.

Work with recombinant DNA took off quickly once the moratorium was lifted and a number of wonder drugs are now in use through this technology. Engineered plants are also in widespread use in agriculture, but implementation at least in the case of Bt corn has been mismanaged to the point that resistance is beginning to break out.

Fast forward to my impending old age and a very different sort of moratorium reared its head in a very ugly way in December of 2011. Read more

Shanghai Culls Poultry as H7N9 Spreads, But Relevant US Research Remains Suspended Due to Security Theater

Partial screen capture of the home page of the Chinese news agency Xinhua (, showing the culling of poultry in Shanghai.

Partial screen capture of the home page of the Chinese news agency Xinhua (, showing the culling of poultry in Shanghai.

Yesterday saw a number of developments in the ongoing story of the emerging H7N9 virus in the Shanghai region of China, as the virus was identified in pigeons being sold at a meat market and the culling of all poultry at that market was initiated. One close associate of an infected person still is being monitored in isolation after developing possible symptoms of the virus and might turn out to be the first case of person to person transfer of the virus. Meanwhile, the CDC already has started work in the US that could lead to a vaccine.

As I pointed out yesterday, key questions to be addressed in understanding how dangerous this virus will be revolve around the issue of how the virus jumps from one host to another and whether it acquires the ability to transfer from one person to another. Sadly, the most directly relevant research in the US on these questions remains suspended due to a cowardly display of security theater by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. Back in late 2011, I wrote about this board asking two prominent scientific journals to censor work that had been approved for publication. The work eventually was published, but only after a hiatus of about six months. As I pointed out at that time, the fears expressed by NSABB were then shown to be entirely unfounded.

In their report online today on the latest developments in the H7N9 emergence, CNN provided a link at the bottom of their story to this story they published back in January, with the headline “Bird flu research resumes — but not in U.S.” From that report:

 Drama surrounding research on the deadly H5N1 avian flu continues, as 40 scientists urge work on the virus to continue in countries that have established guidelines on the safety and aims of the research. The United States is not among them.

This new correspondence, a letter from researchers published Wednesday in the journals Science and Nature, comes after a “voluntary pause” in the research, which scientists announced in January 2012.


In many countries, those objectives have been achieved, according to the letter, and researchers who have permission from their governments to continue this research should do so.

Ah, but the US never misses out on an opportunity to over-play its hand when it comes to security theater, so the work hasn’t restarted here:

But the United States has been unclear about how long it will be before it issues official guidelines for conditions under which H5N1 transmission research can continue, the letter says. As such, laboratories in the United States and facilities abroad that receive U.S. funding should not proceed with their transmission studies.

Back when the NASBB first proposed to censor the work that had been done, I had this to say (emphasis added):

However, in the case of the bird flu version of influenza virus, the basic flu virus is found worldwide and undergoes rapid changes. The fact that flu virus changes rapidly suggests that, as mentioned in the snippet above from ScienceInsider, a version similar [to] that developed in the controversial experiment could even arise naturally. Those who would suppress publication of details on how Fouchier’s group developed the pathogenic virus would prevent responsible researchers repeating the work in order to develop an effective treatment for the virus.  Since the virus could arise naturally, preventing work on a treatment is completely irresponsible.

In the CNN article, we have this from one of the scientists whose work has been put on hold (emphasis added again):

“It’s so easily mutated, so the risk exists in nature already, and not doing the research is really putting us in danger,” Kawaoka said at a press conference Wednesday.

While NSABB was busily subjecting us to needless security theater, nature produced what could be the virus for which scientists were trying to prepare us. They were working with the H5N1 virus to address the very questions of host-jumping and person to person transmission that now lie at the heart of the H7N9 emergence. In the best of all worlds, H7N9 will turn out not spread quickly enough to turn into a deadly pandemic. In that good scenario, H7N9 will serve as a wake-up call to once again free the hands of researchers to carry out work that is vital to understanding deadly bird flu virus outbreaks. The alternative is too terrible to consider. If we see widespread death from H7N9, we will be left to wonder how many of those deaths could have been prevented if this important research had not been suspended.

Science Wins Out: Studies NSABB Attempted to Censor Published, Fears Unfounded


CDC high-speed photograph of droplets spread by a sneeze.

Back in December, a US government panel took the highly controversial position of calling for the censoring of scientific work aimed at an understanding of how the H5N1 “bird flu” virus can change to become directly transmissible between humans. The virus is deadly to humans but can not be spread from one person to another. Instead, close contact with infected birds is required for humans to be infected. The work which the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (which, as described in the Washington Post article linked above, “was created after the anthrax bioterrorism attacks of 2001”) wanted to censor involved experiments aimed at understanding precisely what changes in the virus would be required for it to retain its lethality while also becoming directly transmissible between humans through processes such as the sneeze caught in the disgusting high-speed photo from CDC seen here.

After a very long delay, the first of the two delayed papers was published in Nature last month. Now, the second paper has been published in Science, where the journal has taken the unusual step of dedicating an entire issue to the single topic of the H5N1 virus and has removed the subscription requirements for access.

It turns out that the fearmongering by the NSABB was entirely unfounded. The Washington Post repeated the fear back in December:

Scientists seeking to fight future pandemics have created a variety of “bird flu” potentially so dangerous that a federal advisory panel has for the first time asked two science journals to hold back on publishing details of research.

In the experiments, university-based scientists in the Netherlands and Wisconsin created a version of the so-called H5N1 influenza virus that is highly lethal and easily transmissible between ferrets, the lab animals that most closely mirror human beings in flu research.

The problem is that once the details of the experiments and their results were released, the viruses produced by both of the independent laboratories by different processes lost their lethality as they became transmissible between ferrets, which were used as a model of transmission among humans. It turns out then, that the feared “supervirus” which the NSABB was assuming had been created did not even exist, so the “risk” from publishing details of how one could create it was totally unfounded.

From the New York Times: Read more

Science Wins Out: Bird Flu Virus Experiments Will Be Published Without Redactions Despite Continued US Fear Mongering

Back in December, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) asked that two papers pending publication on scientific research into deadly forms of the H5N1 bird flu virus be redacted when published. This was a bad decision for several reasons, as I pointed out:

At this point, if the details of just which precise mutations occur in the pathogenic virus that was developed are published, it should make no difference, because press reports have already confirmed that the most basic approach one could take, involving a simple genetic selection experiment, gives the result of the more pathogenic virus. It’s even likely there are other combinations of mutations that would make an extremely pathogenic virus if the selection process were repeated in a new experiment.

But the folly of the NSABB decision goes much deeper and is just another aspect of the hysteria that has gripped the United States since the al Qaeda attack on 9/11 and the anthrax attack just a few weeks later. One aspect of this hysteria has been an attempt to make far too many things secret. Much attention has been paid to the over-classification of intelligence information, but the over-classification of scientific information is just as insidious.

No matter how many bits of intelligence or scientific information are made secret, the fact remains that determined terrorists have a multitude of fully described weapons systems to employ in an attack. By stifling publication of basic scientific research into materials that could have weapons potential, the opportunity to develop useful countermeasures becomes significantly diminished.

The “genetic selection” experiments to which I referred are described in one of the two papers that were up for redaction. It showed that by simply passing the bird flu virus through ferrets multiple times, a version of the virus that is more deadly to mammals (and presumably humans) was produced. But as I pointed out in the post, bioterrorists already have available a number of deadly agents that don’t require further research to make them effective. By censoring the work on more deadly bird flu, flow of information to researchers who wish to develop treatments for the disease (and these researchers vastly outnumber bioterrorists) is inhibited. Although those wanting to censor the work intended to make the full details available to a select few, that “solution” is untenable in that it predetermines just who is “important” enough to receive the information. Free flow of information is key to research and one can never predict just who will make the next advance, so pre-selecting those who get the key information is a silly notion.

The good news is that scientific research is an international process, and so “advisory” boards hand-picked by the US “homeland security” lobby do not have the final say. Today’s New York Times, in a front page story, reports that the scientific papers will be published in their entirety. The narrow-mindedness of how the US government has come to stifle scientific thought comes through loud and clear in this article. The final decision on publication was made at a large meeting held by the World Health Organization in Geneva: Read more

In Ferreting Out Science’s Secrets, There Is No Room for Censorship

Ferret photo via Wikimedia Commons

On Tuesday afternoon, the Washington Post announced that the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has officially asked two scientific journals to censor portions of manuscripts that are pending for publication:

The federal government on Tuesday asked two science journals to censor parts of two papers describing how researchers produced what appears to be a far more dangerous version of the “bird flu” virus that has circulated in Asia for more than a decade.


After weeks of reviewing the manuscripts the board recommended their “general conclusions” be published but “not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”

The board — 23 scientists and public-health experts from outside the government, and 18 from within — cannot stop publication. Its advice goes to the Department of Health and Human Services, whose leaders will ask the journals — Science, published in Washington, and Nature, published in London — to comply.

The folly of the board’s request is monumental. First of all, it’s already too late for the workers to “not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments”. Read more