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?