As a biological weapon, H5N1 is for the birds

By Peter Christian Hall
January 9, 2012

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

12 comments

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There are several gaps in the logic presented in this article:

1. “To start with, biology is an overrated tool that has rarely brought victory in war.”

In today’s world, how do you define “victory” from a non-state actor’s perspective? Specifically within the constraints of the definition of “terrorism”? It is most certainly NOT the same as the definition of victory within the context of traditional, symmetric warfare. The point of many terrorist groups was specifically to generate social disruption and mass anxiety. An agent associated with imprecise biological targeting will do precisely that.

2. As a biodefense professional, I will answer your question:

“So why [WOULD] a desperate outlaw state—or terrorists—want to weaponize the most dreaded flu strain scientists have ever found?”

“[PRECISELY] because H5N1 would make a wretched weapon.”

Don’t make the mistake of assuming rationality in the mindset of the mentally disturbed or that of a terrorist organization. And don’t make the assumption of morality and ethics equal to our own.

3. Information control is associated with a time decay for leakage. The point here is to rapidly gain understanding of the phenomenon of virus mutation within a trusted network of competent scientists- for the good of the world- and have access to development of countermeasures BEFORE leakage of information that could get into the wrong hands.

Like most things in life, what is being asked here is a balance and a compromise in responsible management of the information. I do not think anyone is opposed to gaining knowledge for the good of the world, but let’s not be cavalier about putting the wrong information into the wrong people’s hands. Remember the ignorant bliss exhibited by the events of 9/11- the “can’t happen to us” typical insular belief system of our country was challenged-again. Must we learn the same lessons over and again?

James M. Wilson V, M.D.
Executive Director
Praecipio International

Posted by JamesWilsonMD | Report as abusive

I agree with James Wilson. I’m doing post-grad study in this field at the moment, and here is my take on the argument:

Hall uses old examples and forgets that when the Confederate Army and Shinrikyo tried to use Bioscience was less advanced; it’s been between 20 and 200 years since most of the events he mentiones took place. I’m sure today a couple of rogue scientists could manage a vat of botulism toxin without falling into it and only subsequently realizing it contained none at all (as Shinrikyo did). Furthermore, even though the South lost the war, their tactics still made the water undrinkable (which was the aim); and smallpox effectively decimated the Native American population. Just because a side using a certain technology loses, does not make the technology ineffective. People have used guns in many wars, often on both sides. It’s not the guns’ fault one side lost.

I assume (and hope) that the government will build these facilities to be natural disaster- proof. Hall is right about most people not wanting to use this virus as a weapon and that the majority of the threat would be accidental. But that doesn’t include all actors, a rogue scientist is far more likely now that level 4 bio labs are proliferating and not only staffed by senior researchers. And since the ferett experiment allegedly did produce a super strain; all the scarier.

The question to ask is who would want the Avian flu, and although your run of the mill political /religious terrorist group or rogue state would not be interested, I think a doomsday cult (that may have the intent to commit mass suicide anyway) or a rogue scientist might be. Thankfully there are not a whole lot of either of these floating around. That said, only one would need to be successful.

Posted by pardnaxela | Report as abusive

Mr. Hall,

You will undoubtedly benefit financially from making a disingenuous and irresponsible argument in favor of unregulated H5n1 “research” and unrestricted academic access to same when your book goes on sale. While I might excuse your “freedom of research” naivety in an undergraduate, you are an obviously mature individual.

To do this to boost sales of a book that otherwise few would buy or read is contrary to the most fundamental values of civil society. The “needs of the many”, the thousand that might die, outweigh any possible commercial “value” of what you have to say (if you survive).

You state that H5n1 wouldn’t make a useful weapon. Terrorists use suicide bombers again and again. Is that a “useful” weapon? Must be. They keep doing it! They show the same appalling willingness to “embrace” tools that put “their members” at risk as did the Japanese Kamikaze in WW II. That was a very effective weapon. It cost the U.S. a lot of lives and material even though the Japanese lost in the end.

It certain appears that radical Muslims are the face of the army of Islam just as the Nazis were the face of the army of WW II Germany. Though uneducated, unskilled, and without an original thought in their head, radical Muslims are quite cunning and utterly dedicated to their “vision”. They also reproduce at a rate that would make a rabbit blush.

Given their apparent primary goal to eliminate a thousand years or more of human progress and destroy civilization as we know it, these people might well embrace the loss of a billion human lives. Modern society might be incapable of surviving such widespread disruption over a period of up to a year. Terrorists have demonstrated time and again they don’t NEED weapons that are “targeted”.

You are aware that “…this fearsome virus could wreak catastrophic harm if it learns how to circulate readily among humans”, and that scientists have apparently made that possible. You agree that “…influenza is an extremely dangerous, poorly understood virus…”.

Yet you argue that high security government biomedical programs under Top Secret military security with federal funding is no safer than “academic workers” who go through “airport sneaker checks”? You deem having the U.S. Government control research and access to the results of same as the “more perilous development” than allowing such research without meaningful oversight? Please.

That is the most intellectually bankrupt and academically indefensible argument I have seen anyone make publicly with a straight face in my seventy-one years on this planet.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Correction: “Thousand” should have been “billion”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

[...] As a biological weapon, H5N1 is for the birds [...]

Hall uses old examples and forgets that when the Confederate Army and Shinrikyo tried to use Bioscience was less advanced. It’s been between 20 and 200 years since most of these events took place. I’m sure a couple of rogue scientists today could manage a vat of botulism toxin without falling into it and only subsequently realizing it contained none at all (as Shinrikyo did). Furthermore, even though the South lost the war, their tactics still rendered the water unusable, and smallpox essentially decimated the Native American population. Just because a side using a certain technology loses, does not make the technology ineffective. People have used guns in many wars, often on both sides. It’s not the guns’ fault one side lost.

I assume (and hope) that the government will build these facilities to be natural disaster- proof. Hall is right about most people not wanting to use this virus as a weapon and that the majority of the threat would be accidental. But that doesn’t include all actors, a rogue scientist is far more likely now that level 4 bio labs are proliferating and not only staffed by senior researchers. And since the ferret experiment allegedly did produce a super strain; all the scarier. The question to ask is who would want the Avian flu, and although your run of the mill political /religious terrorist group or rogue state would not be interested, I think a doomsday cult (that may have the intent to commit mass suicide anyway) or a rogue scientist might be. Thankfully there are not a whole lot of either of these floating around. That said, only one would need to be successful.

Posted by pardnaxela | Report as abusive

Sorry, ‘One of the Sheep,’ but I don’t grasp how I’ll sell more copies of my pandemic flu novel by contending that research into H5N1 transmissibility is less dangerous than the government says. Arguing for reason and against hysteria is no way to sell a thriller.

Bio-weapons are just that: weapons. Both you and Dr. Wilson (in the first comment) contend that we must worry about doomsday killers who wish to kill indiscriminately. This is why I looked closely at the practices of Aum Shinrikyo, often described as a doomsday cult. Even Aum favored chemical and biological weapons that could be targeted. Suicide bombers are targeted devices; their payload is localized. A civilization ruled by the fear that maniacs will kill everyone on earth by any means possible is necessarily authoritarian. How can we continue to live in cities if we believe they abound?

H5N1 is a menace mankind feeds every day via industrial farming practices. There are many ways to fight the consequences, but barring research and the discussion thereof holds little promise.

As for the government’s top secret efforts, I pointed out that a CDC-backed experiment with ferrets had yielded a reassuring but now-discredited result earlier this year.

The government’s claim that the post-9/11 anthrax mailings came from top scientist Bruce Ivins at its lab at Fort Detrick is scary. That the FBI’s investigation is under a broad shadow of doubt is worse. That the shaky case against Ivins, who killed himself under pressure, followed a $5.8 million payment to yet another government scientist who had been publicly identified as a ‘person of interest’ (Steven J. Hatfill) in the case is terrifying. The anthrax mailings seem never to have been solved, as Laurie Garrett explores in her book, ‘I Heard the Sirens Scream.’

Putting science under bureaucratic wraps strikes me as a terrible solution. I appreciate that you both disagree.

Here’s an excellent blog post from Dr. Vincent Racaniello on this matter:
http://www.virology.ws/2012/01/09/n-y-ti mes-h5n1-ferret-research-should-not-have -been-done/

Best, Peter Christian Hall

Posted by PCHall | Report as abusive

@PCHall,

It’s really pretty simple. Authors can trumpet most anything into the media and create “buzz” so people are aware of their book(s) and seek to learn “the truth”. I seem to recall the recent re-opening of the Natalie Wood death case in California largely because of a new book, and that case is again closed.

You ask “How can we continue to live in cities if we believe they abound?” I don’t, and that is not by chance. It is not a matter of if but when a dirty bomb or suitcase nuke from some corner of the failed “Soviet Union” is set off in New York or Washington or a major port. As our society becomes more and more an information one and not a manufacturing one, cities become more of a liability as targets than economic necessities; and so society will change accordingly.

I would disagree with your assertion that H5n1 is a menace because of “industrial farming practices”. It presently, as I understand the process, only makes the jump to humans where humans live with their chickens. That’s not in a quantity production facility but in Asia where individuals keep a few for eggs and meat, etc.

Everything else you say merely looks at the considerable questions of human nature and intent which are not any different in terms of the Bird Flu threat than any other.

Dr. Racaniello’s article offers more questions than answers. Tamiflu and Relenza may or may not be effective. They may or may not retain effectiveness as the virus evolves “in the wild” as is common.

The “bottom line” is that academics should NOT have freedom or be paid to figure out new ways to hasten the demise of humans and then dull each new sword they thus produce. Yes, it’s a nice never-ending “living”, but far too risky for the “rest of us” to accept. It does NOTHING to improve our lives and might someday end them!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@OneOfTheSheep
The entire species cannot emulate your personal flight to nature. That would leave the earth devoid of natural settings, providing little security and unleashing further lethal viruses, which spring out of threatened natural settings, as illustrated at the close of the movie, ‘Contagion.’

The use of antibacterials and antivirals in industrial farming most certainly facilitates the evolution of dangerous viruses. The FDA has been dithering about banning routine antibiotic use in agriculture for decades.

I remain appalled at the hostility that simple, innovative scientific work from a pair of prestigious BSL-3 labs has evoked. They simply let nature take its course under controlled circumstances.

Attitudes such as yours would have forestalled the creation of vaccines. I’d prefer not to await passively a devastating pandemic.

@pardnaxela
Smallpox came to North America with Cortez. There’s no evidence that the British military’s efforts had much effect on the Indians; by then it wuld have triggered, at most, a local outbreak.
We are always at the mercy of anyone who wants to kill everyone. Even H5N1 would not do that. The hysteria over this issue is dangerous to people and to science and I contend that we will all suffer if research is to be governed in the future by U.S. government officials.

Posted by PCHall | Report as abusive

OneOfTheSheep makes several good points. One, that when we create problems, they affect ALL of us and individual escapism is not the answer. Two, when we refuse to recognize that there are natural laws that govern the outcome of our over-use of anti-microbials in food production, we create much larger problems than we solve. Three we shouldn’t underplay or sensationalize these very serious problems for the sake of selling novels which create hysteria and distract us from coming together and solving our man made problems. We need to focus on changing our foolish commercial intentions from making profits at the expense of ourselves and future generations to an intention to serve mankind in order to serve the development of humankind. We can achieve far superior societies than we’ve ever dreamed of if we change our focus.

Posted by crdcal | Report as abusive

ScienceNow is running an event on this issue today:
http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/20 12/01/live-chat-should-science-be-cens.h tml?rss=1&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_med ium=twitter

ScienceNow’s poll sows that 59 percent of respondents now support full publication of H5N1 research; 41 percent oppose.

Best, Peter Christian Hall

Posted by PCHall | Report as abusive

@PCHall,

More academic navel-gazing. A poll in a publication read primarily by those in or interested in research in general being is about like a 59% vote by pilots at the airport to pave their runway at public expense. That’s well below a passing grade, even taken among “enthusiasts”.

It’s society at large that ultimately PAYS for research AND the costs when things go wrong. Any research community that does not yield to the “voice of the people” will get cut off. I guarantee it!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

We wouldn’t have vaccines if such an attitude had prevailed in the past.

Posted by PCHall | Report as abusive

[...] Peter Hall, who never makes a false move as he builds suspense right from the start.” Hall’s latest article, at Reuters.com, challenges the U.S. government’s efforts to suppress H5N1 avian [...]

[...] Peter Hall, who never makes a false move as he builds suspense right from the start.” Hall’s latest article, at Reuters.com, challenges the U.S. government’s efforts to suppress H5N1 avian [...]