The New York Times looked at air-borne H5N1 research, and saw it wasn’t good.
The Times devoted it’s lead Sunday editorial in its Jan. 8 edition — the paper’s place for its highest profile editorial pronouncements, usually focused on politics, economics, or international relations — to its official opinion on controversial research in which two labs, one in Madison, Wis., and one in Rotterdam, made strains of the deadly H5N1 avian influenza that were transmissible in the air from ferret-to-ferret.
H5N1 virus/image courtesy Cynthia Goldsmith, CDC Public Health Image Library
In the editorial, the newspaper declared that “the research should never have been undertaken because the potential harm is so catastrophic and the potential benefits from studying the virus so speculative.” And that “the consequences, should the virus escape, are too devastating to risk.”
These statements were startling not only because the Times rarely takes an editorial stand on the specifics of biomedical research, but also because, as the editorial itself admitted, “we nearly always champion unfettered scientific research and open publication of the results.” So why the uncharacteristic stand?
The editorial cited two major reasons: the underlying danger from the new virus that’s been created, and the questionable research benefits from this line of work. The newspaper called the potential benefit from studying the newly made H5N1 variant “speculative” and questioned the level of security currently in place to safeguard the new virus.
But the Times’ concerns strikingly contrast with recent statements from officials at the National Institutes of Health, which co-sponsored this H5N1 research, as well as from officials at the World Health Organization.
On Dec. 30, an opinion piece in The Washington Post by Anthony Fauci, Gary Nabel, and Francis Collins of the NIH strongly defended the research and provided a simple, but unequivocal scientific rationale for it. “New data provide valuable insights that can inform influenza preparedness and help delineate the principles of virus transmission between species,” they wrote. “Identifying threatening viruses can also facilitate the early stages of manufacturing vaccines that protect against such a virus in advance of an outbreak…Decades of experience tells us that disseminating information gained through biomedical research to legitimate scientists and health officials provides a critical foundation for generating appropriate countermeasures and, ultimately, protecting the public health.” These NIH officials also defended the security in place, noting “the engineered viruses developed in the ferret experiments are maintained in high-security laboratories.”
The WHO issued its endorsement the same day, saying : “Studies conducted under appropriate conditions must continue to take place so that critical scientific knowledge needed to reduce the risks posed by the H5N1 virus continues to increase.” Although the WHO statement cautioned that the organization was “deeply concerned about potential negative consequences” of the research, it firmly stated that “research which can improve the understanding of these viruses and can reduce the public health risk is a scientific and public health imperative” that “must continue.”
The Times has been notable among U.S. papers in its thorough, thoughtful, and informative reporting covering several facets of the air-borne H5N1 story since it broke on Dec. 20. The big story initially centered on the suppression of details of how the ferret experiments were done, but since then the issue appropriately shifted to why the research was done and whether it had scientific merit. The Times greatly added to this discussion by publishing an interview with the head of the Rotterdam research team, and follow-up articles that examined the balance of potential benefits and risks from the work, as well as some of the underlying science behind avian flu transmission. Their interview with Dr. Fouchier, head of the Rotterdam group, included a memorable quote where he explained why he thought the research was so vital despite its danger: “In our opinion, nature is the biggest bioterrorist,” he said.
After producing such helpful and meaningful reporting over the past 2 weeks, it seems particularly curious that the Times’ editorial board looked at the totality of what’s been said on the subject and came down against the research, especially after it received renewed votes of confidence from several respected NIH leaders and from the WHO. It makes you wonder which infectious disease experts stand behind the Times’ position.
—Mitchel Zoler (on Twitter @mitchelzoler)