As a biological weapon, H5N1 is for the birds
By Peter Christian Hall
The opinions expressed are his own.
Amid the furor over the U.S. government’s move to restrict publication of vital research into H5N1 avian flu, no one seems to be challenging a key assumption—that H5N1 could make a useful weapon. It wouldn’t.
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recently pressured Science and Nature not to fully publish two widely discussed papers detailing separate efforts to devise an H5N1 avian flu strain that transmits easily in ferrets and might do so among human beings. The proposed solution is to issue redacted versions and circulate details only to approved institutions.
This unprecedented interference in the field of biology could hinder research and hamper responsiveness in distant lands plagued by H5N1. If institutions there don’t know what gene changes to watch for, how quickly will we know if H5N1 replicates a pandemic combination defined by researchers on three continents?
There’s little question that this fearsome virus could wreak catastrophic harm if it learns how to circulate readily among humans. Through last week, when H5N1 killed a man near Hong Kong (site of the first official outbreak, in 1997), it has slain 60 percent of about 600 people certified as having been infected with it. Predictions of the global toll if H5N1 should turn pandemic reach as high as a billion people.
So why wouldn’t a desperate outlaw state—or terrorists—want to weaponize the most dreaded flu strain scientists have ever found?
Because H5N1 would make a wretched weapon.
To start with, biology is an overrated tool that has rarely brought victory in war. During the American Civil War, for instance, the South employed the timeworn trick of dumping corpses into water supplies needed by its enemies.
The history of biological warfare is an instructively quick read, as this Nova slide show demonstrates. It begins with all of three battles in which aggressors catapulted dead specimens into besieged cities during the Middle Ages; only one surrendered. Then, during the American Revolution, it seems the British tried to infect Yankee rebels with smallpox in Boston and in Canada (where it may have had some effect, following a key defeat) and gave tainted blankets to Native Americans.
Germany tried and failed to sabotage Allied food sources with bacteria during World War I. Japan’s Unit 731 committed terrible biological atrocities in China, to little strategic effect, during the 1930s and ’40s. With Pentagon support, President Richard M. Nixon scuttled the entire U.S. bio-war program, after which the Soviets mounted a huge, expensive effort that accidentally killed almost 70 civilians via an anthrax leak in 1979. An embattled cult in Oregon spread salmonella in salad bars. Japan’s murderous Aum Shinrikyo sect collected numerous biological agents but failed to achieve anything with them. Saddam Hussein spent a lot of money and effort to emulate the Soviet program, then scuttled it at the UN’s behest in 1991.
Finally, someone mailed anthrax to prominent Americans shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. government blames a top scientist at its biomedical lab at Fort Detrick, Md., who then took his own life.
None of them ever tried to weaponize a flu strain—for good reason.
Influenza in general is an equal-opportunity menace, particularly dangerous when a strain is so unfamiliar that humanity lacks immunity to it. This would put at great risk anyone trying to assemble a pandemic H5N1 to launch at “target” populations. Indeed, such an attack would unleash global contagion that would swiftly and inevitably incapacitate an aggressor’s own people. Influenza doesn’t respect borders.
The worst known flu crisis to date—the Great Pandemic of 1918, thought to have sprung up in Kansas to kill at least 30 million globally—conferred no proven advantage during World War I. Some historians think H1N1 broke the German Army in the midst of its final offensive, but only after ravaging the Allies.
What about terrorists then? Would the doomsday gang Aum Shinrikyo—which in 1995 nerve-gassed Tokyo’s subways, killing 13 commuters and injuring around a thousand—have tried to obtain H5N1 and make it transmissible? Aum, one of whose remaining fugitives turned himself in last week, recruited 10,000 Japanese and 30,000 Russians, including many graduates of elite universities. The sect ran sophisticated medical facilities. In addition to nerve agents, Aum stockpiled anthrax and Ebola virus cultures and tried to bomb Tokyo’s subways with hydrogen cyanide.
However grisly their effects, Aum’s microbial favorites can all be distributed in a controlled fashion. Deep in the African bush, Ebola outbreaks are snuffed out once vectors are identified. Anthrax generally kills those who inhale it but doesn’t spread via secondary contact. Aum yearned to unleash biological weapons as a terror tactic, but there’s no evidence it embraced any tools whose spread would put its members at risk.
O.K., suppose a “bad actor” at a high-level government lab were to access and explore, for instance, some research federal authorities are anxious to control. (This is essentially what the FBI says led to distribution of anthrax from Fort Detrick, although the bureau’s evidential logic has been broadly disputed.)
Such biomedical labs have multiplied lavishly around the world—particularly in the U.S.—since 9/11. Washington’s siting choices raise questions about its commitment to public security. A top-level BSL-4 facility opened in 2009 in Galveston, Tex.—a city flattened in 1900 by a hurricane that a government agency calls “the greatest natural disaster ever to strike the United States.” The Plum Island, N.Y., infectious animal disease center is being relocated to a BSL-4 lab under construction in Tornado Alley’s Manhattan, Kan.
Indeed, anyone concerned about bio-terror might contemplate the thousands of newly employed scientists and technicians privy to restricted data and microbial samples. Workers at these facilities would undoubtedly rank high on government lists of those who can access restricted research. What makes them safer than academic workers? Will non-government scientists have to go through the equivalent of airport sneaker checks to conduct research?
In that light, it’s significant that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced in April that a team of scientists it sponsored had failed to render H5N1 more transmissible in ferrets. Experts found this comforting. It was evidently misleading.
The public should certainly be concerned about unbridled transport of potentially pandemic flu strains. Rigorous care must be taken lest any escape. But influenza is an extremely dangerous, poorly understood virus. Letting the U.S. government suppress promising scientific work by controlling who can research it and who can assess the results strikes me as the more perilous development.
PHOTO: Health workers pack dead chicken at a wholesale poultry market in Hong Kong, Dec. 21, 2011. Workers began culling 17,000 chickens at a Hong Kong wholesale poultry market after a dead chicken there tested positive for the deadly H5N1 avian virus, a government spokesman said. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu