The Man-made H5N1 Controversy Heats Up: What Next? (Part Two)

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Today 22 scientists are gathered in Geneva at the World Health Organization to decide the fate of man-made flu viruses, including whether details regarding how the dangerous strains of H5N1 were made. The viruses – at least one form made by Dutch scientists – may constitute the most dangerous microbes our species has ever confronted, combining both the potential to spread rapidly from human-to-human, and the highest virulenceever seen with influenza.

This is the second of a daily series of blog postings over the next week that will dwell on issues surrounding the H5N1 controversy.

Today we ask: Is Censorship, as a Practical Matter, a Meaningful Deterent to Malevolent Use?

As I have previously written, biology research is in the midst of two great revolutions: synthetic biology and open-sourcing. The combined impact is that the cost and difficulty of doing genetically-based life forms research has plummeted faster than Moore’s Law would have predicted, and as a community, biologists now advocate rapid open on-line publication and sharing of all aspects of their work. To put this in perspective, in 1990, the NIH initiated the Human Genome Project, aimed at sequencing the entire DNA of a human being – some 25,000 genes. The grand effort was completed in 2001, analyzed, and published in 2003. The NIH effort involved more than twenty major research institutions worldwide, and about 160 laboratories. Racing to beat the public effort, Celera Corporation ran a private genome sequencing drive. On the public side $2.7 billion was spent; Celera has never released its costs. Conservatively estimated, the first human genome was sequenced at a combined cost of $3 billion, more than 160 laboratories, and eleven years’ effort.

Today it is possible to sequence an individual’s entire genome for about $1,000, in less than two days’ time. Crude sequencing devices can now be purchased for as little as $599.00, and commercial companies advertise that they will sequence anything for less than $5,000 – including, presumably, microbes.

From more than $3 billion, to around $1,000; hundreds of trained scientists, to do-it-yourself; eight concentrated years of labor, to a few hours, mostly automated – it is entirely reasonable that genetically sequencing one’s personal DNA will be a mandatory biology exercise for teenagers before the end of this decade. Microbe sequencing and analysis? Piece of cake….

Meanwhile, open source biology, or DIY-Bio has swiftly evolved from a rebel fringe movement to fairlymainstream science. Idealistically motivated scientists openly share, with the goal of solving world problems; create profitable innovationssynthesize microorganisms; engage young people in science. While older scientists still compete with a proprietary sense of protecting their discoveries and methods, younger researchers have grown up telling thousands of anonymous people on the internet what they were doing every day. Information has little inherent value in the new biology culture, unless it is shared.

At the New York Academy of Sciences February 2 debate, editors from Science and Nature were asked how many reviewers and staff had already seen the full Fouchier and Kawaoka papers, and scientists were asked how widely they guessed the un-redacted work had already circulated. The reckonings ranged from about 300 to more than 1,000 people. The uncensored papers no doubt reside in the computer systems and e-mail boxes in many universities’ notoriously hacker-vulnerable systems. It does not seem remotely possible that a determined individual with average computer skills would find it difficult to obtain unedited studies.

Nature Biotechnology editorializes:

Thus, redaction is a cat-less bag, a horse-less stable, an after-act of the most feeble and ineffectual proportions. It will incite the ire of the scientific community and exacerbate concerns of exclusion from officials in countries like Indonesia that hold valuable H5N1 samples. The only upside is it might propel a sober and serious discussion about the types of research that should be funded with open publication as an end goal.

It is possible to argue that, in many areas of science, a priori discussion of ethical and security issues are simply not possible. The issues are too ethereal, the cognoscenti too few, the implications too abstruse.

The NSABB felt, however, that allowing a normal “Materials & Methods” section to appear in Science or Naturewould be tantamount to handing a cookbook to a terrorist. There is absolutely no consensus among biologists regarding whether or not the papers should be published with redactions.

Tomorrow’s blog: The Public Health Rationale for Doing the Experiments

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