Molotov cocktails. Napalm. Nuclear bombs. Dirty bombs. Smallpox. All dangerous. All deadly in the wrong hands. All fairly widely understood in the scientific community, so much so that the control point around them isn’t related to information. It’s related to supplies. While it’s easy to get a rag, a broken bottle, some gasoline, and a match, it gets progressively harder to get napalm, plutonium, or Variola major.
Now, an interesting ethical dilemma is facing two journals as the US government — whose National Institutes of Health funded the research in question — is asking Nature and Science to not publish full genetic sequences involved in making the H5N1 bird flu virus transmissible by coughing or sneezing. It turns out bird flu only needs a few nudges to become aerosolized.
The original impetus behind the research was to find ways to develop drugs and vaccines against bird flu by understanding its mutation pathways. Unfortunately, researchers found it took just five mutations in two genes to create a strain of H5N1 that could get airborne and infect and potentially kill millions.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, overseen by the NIH, has asked Science and Nature to keep certain details out of reports that they intend to publish on the research.
When I first read about this, the case of United States v. Progressive came to mind. Not by name, of course. That required a trip to the Google. But I remembered the general parameters from when I was a kid. There are some clear parallels.
In United States v. Progressive, the issue was publication of plans for a hydrogen bomb. The government sought prior restraint on the publication, and a Wisconsin federal district judge ruled in favor of the government’s interests based on compelling national security concerns. However, the case was ultimately made moot because the information was published outside the United States soon after.
Does the US government realize that Nature is not published by a US publisher? Their request certainly can carry a moral weight, but that may be where it ends.
Censorship often backfires, because once word about the censorship leaks out, there’s more interest in the work or topic than there might have been otherwise. That might be the case here, as reporters have turned their attention to the facts. For something the government wants to keep quiet, there are plenty of specifics in the news already, including this set of tantalizing tidbits:
The study was carried out by a Dutch team of scientists led by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, where the mutated virus is stored under lock and key, but without armed guards, in a basement building.
In addition, since the best science can be replicated, there is this even clearer message that the genie may be out of the bottle:
A second, independent team of researchers led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the universities of Wisconsin and Tokyo is understood to have carried out similar work with similar results
Reading the coverage — the potential danger, the outlines of how to accomplish the change — there are at least three relevant questions:
- Is the news itself as dangerous as anything? Who knows how creeps think, but if their attention wasn’t focused on H5N1 before, it certainly will be now. And with that attention comes the potential for the information to be drawn out through back channels — bribes to the researchers or their assistants, theft, or things even more dire.
- Now that Wikileaks and similar hacker-based contingents have some computers to target, will those computers be able to withstand the attacks? Announcing where valuable data exists is an open invitation to some hackers. Assuming hackers get the genetic sequences, what then?
- Is the virus going to accomplish these mutations before long anyhow? If there are so few genes and steps involved, and billions of opportunities for genetic recombination on a daily basis, how long can it take before we face this naturally?
In any scenario, it seems wise to have a research and biomedical community in full command of the facts. Bruce Alberts, editor of Science, has stated that his journal may comply with the request if the NIH can create systems to provide the data to legitimate scientists around the world. There are problems with this approach. Even a virus as locked down and seemingly obliterated as smallpox has been more accessible than intended despite a similar system around its raw materials — in 2006, the Guardian successfully purchased part of the smallpox genome from one of the companies selling pathogen DNA. And legitimate scientists have broken rules for mere citations. Certainly, these data are a bit more potent than a better h-index.
Science is a form of crowd-sourcing. Which company, academic institution, scientist, or combination will come up with the vaccine or drug that will knock out H5N1+ can’t be predicted. But the science crowd needs the data. How many scientists will it take to crack this challenge to human health?
Pretending the data are safe now that their existence is known isn’t practical. The data will get out. If the information is in the hands of the good guys first, our chances seem better.
This is a thorny ethical issue, but not as thorny as many. There is precedent here with United States v. Progressive. One country or two journals exercising restraint won’t be enough. And in a communications environment much different than the one that existed in 1979, when United States v. Progressive was decided, keeping secrets whose existence has been broadcast and which reside on digital media is nearly impossible. One hack, one thumb drive, and they’re out.
Instead, the best approach seems to be to lock down the raw materials needed to turn that knowledge into power. That, at least, has a track record of working while allowing science to advance.