The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity weighed in publicly for the first time yesterday about research on mammalian-adapted H5N1 influenza, and the Board’s verdict was that the research is important and needs to go forward, but must be done very carefully, with oversight, and without releasing potentially dangerous details to the general public.
Perhaps most importantly, aside from the NSABB giving a general thumbs up to current and future H5N1 research, the Board cried out a clear warning for the world to prepare for a naturally generated H5N1 threat. As acting NSABB chairman Paul S. Keim said in a Q&A that accompanied the Board’s statement in Nature, “It is important to convey how unprepared, on every level, the world is for a H5N1 pandemic.” A highly pathogenic form of H5N1 flu, which the recent work by Kawaoka and Fouchier made clear is a potential natural development, would produce an “unimaginable catastrophe” worldwide, the NSABB said in its statement yesterday.
The Board also coined a new phrase to categorize the H5N1 work: “dual use research.” Dual in that the research “could be used for good or bad purposes.” That, of course, is why the Board wants the methods part of the work kept off the public record. “Publishing these experiments in detail would provide information to some person, organization, or government that would help them to develop similar mammal-adapted influenza A/H5N1 viruses for harmful purposes,” the NSABB said. The Board said the threat from this work is so high that the life sciences have now “reached a crossroads,” similar to what physics faced in the 1940s with the development of nuclear weapons.
But despite the threat from widespread release of the research methods—a risk that the NSABB says it believes can be blunted by simply not publishing the information—the Board firmly endorsed the work done so far and its continuation. That contrasts with the continued call from some critics to shut it down completely.
H5N1 research is “a well-intended effort to discover evolutionary routes by which influenza A/H5N1 viruses might adapt to humans. Such knowledge may be valuable for improving the public-health response to a looming natural threat,” the NSABB said. “We acknowledge that there are clear benefits to be realized for the public good in alerting humanity of this potential threat and in pursuing those aspects of this work that will allow greater preparedness and the potential development of novel strategies leading to future disease control.”
—Mitchel Zoler (on Twitter @mitchelzoler)