Bird-flu, Smallpox, Chicken Soup Research- The Coming Storm

Every so often research or technology finds its way into the headlines as a source of potential misuse concern.  This week it is ‘gain of function’ research into the H7N9 strain of bird-flu. This research will involve experiments which may result in the development of strains which are more lethal, infectious  and more prone to change than strains found in nature. This follows the announcement by a group of scientists of their intentions in a letter to two leading scientific journals.

This announcement comes in the wake of a previous outcry in relation to H5N1 research. This was conducted by some of the researchers now working on H7N9. The H5N1 fiasco focused on the question of whether research which demonstrated how to make the H5N1 virus transmissible through the air should be published.  In the case of the H5N1, political panic set in, which sparked some unusual international events and discussions, as well as a year-long voluntary hiatus on similar research. The ultimate outcome was that the US government decided to tighten up  institutional level review and risk assessment  of  research on certain pathogens.  An approach which neglected broader underlying concerns, and revealed absence of institutional capacity to deal with these issues at both national and international level in a scientific and legitimate way.

Who's afraid of a chicken? A transmission electron micrograph (TEM) image of a strain of Influenza. (Photo CDC/ Dr. Erskine. L. Palmer; Dr. M. L. Martin)

Who’s afraid of a chicken? A transmission electron micrograph (TEM) image of a strain of Influenza. (Photo CDC/ Dr. Erskine. L. Palmer; Dr. M. L. Martin)

Before  bird-flu other S&T to attract press attention included viral-synthesis research and mouse-pox research. Added to this concerns about mail-order viral components also appeared in the press in the mid 2000’s. These latter concerns have been dealt with primarily through voluntary industry screening practices. The most recent non-biological technology to be discussed in terms of its  misuse potential is 3D printing technology – which has raised the concern for some that the technology will allow people to print plastic firearms.

Such heightened public concerns about specific experiments and technology appear bizarre,  in the context of the claim that all science and technology can be misused. Indeed  as a  biochemist I once interviewed pointed out, even work on the immune benefits of chicken soup, could breed findings into how to overcome the immune system of a human being.   Added to this there is research occurring internationally that involves doing lots of worrying things to nasty pathogens. This includes research into pox-viruses. Smallpox, the most tightly regulated pathogen internationally, is a classic bio-weapon agent.  This eradicated pathogen only exists in two high-security laboratories – one in Russia, and one in the US.

Be that as it may, it is only  a handful of experiments which have been subject to the public and policy circus that is high-level dual-use review. The organizers of such interventions have faced the daunting task of providing expert and timely advice. Following two reviews conducted by US dual-use advisory body  one dissenting  (now former) member described the political situation as involving ‘uncharted scientific and public policy waters‘ and suggested that the reviews were based on inadequate technical information.

ASMBiodefense 2012 - H5N1 Research Discussion(Photo by Chris Condayan)

ASMBiodefense 2012 – H5N1 Research Discussion (Photo by Chris Condayan)

As a colleague at the University of Bradford has pointed out– it appears paradoxical that dual-use issues are supposedly everywhere, but that such political dilemmas are incredibly rare. Over my time conducting my PhD on dual-use policy,  I have heard several catch-all explanations for why  a  life science research team, operating quietly in their lab one week – can suddenly find themselves being called to justify their research in terms of benefits and risks in a public forum. Or alternatively, why certain foundational technologies such as gene-synthesis technologies have received the lion’s share of dual-use concern within the biotech sector in recent years – sparking  the development of Federal guidelines and industry oversight initiatives.

A common one is the ‘terror/hype’ explanation the idea that certain experiments, presented in a certain way at the right time are just downright scary.  The terror/hype explanation suggests that such  public furor is dependent on the heady mix of technology hype and accessible misuse scenarios which capture the imagination. Occasionally aspects of the press undoubtedly aid this, through the over-simplification of research, or the focus on extreme worst case scenarios. Although, in my own experience, the polarization between the scientific and security communities, has  also sometimes resulted in equally as unhelpful presentations of the issue. Another explanation – and one which tends to be preferred by conspiracy theorist types, is that the range of experiments and technologies which have reached press, public and policy maker attention reflect certain political agendas.

It is difficult to make sense of  the politics which  surrounds dual-use issues relying on  either of these approaches exclusively. An alternative approach is to focus on the  institutional landscape which gives scope, significance and form to dual-use use issues- and allows ‘dual-use’ dilemmas to bubble to the surface.  Below  are some of the underlying reasons why dual-use issues get some policy shapers and aspects of the public flustered.

  • Public lack of faith in laboratory bio-safety/ bio-security.
  • The perceived  threat of rogue researchers working with the most dangerous pathogens within public health and biodefense research institutions. Such concerns occur in the wake of the allegations that a US biodefense researcher was behind the 2001 Anthrax attacks in the US.
  • Concerns about state bio-defense programs within the international community.  For example,  the US biodefense program has been singled out as a cause for dual-use concern by some states and commentators. It has been suggested that such programs have the potential to make other states feel  less secure.
  • Concerns about de-skilling and diffusion dynamics  within biotechnology. These trends make it harder for states to monitor and regulate against misuse by criminals and terrorists.
  • Low levels of awareness among scientists about: misuse issues, the history of biowarfare as well as the international CBW regime.
  • The emergence of dual-use issues as a  public anxiety in relation to  new bio-technologies

A key question, is how scientists and policy shapers can work together to cut through rhetoric and crossed purposes as part of the process of building scientifically sound policy directed at better understanding and responding to dual-use issues. It seems likely however that the  legacy of the coming H7H9  storm will not be clear-cut solutions. We can only hope for some positive incremental developments in our institutional capacity to convincingly address this issue area. One such development is the  announcement that the US Department of Health and Human Services ( a key, but not the only funder of H7N9 research internationally) will provide an extra layer of review for research which is:

reasonably  anticipated to generate H7N9 viruses with increased transmissibility between mammals by respiratory droplets’

The Dept. HHS review will be an interesting test case for such an approach in the wake of the H5N1 discussions last  year. However, it already appears, that while such research will inevitably take place, it will do so in the context of some heated discussion.  It seems likely however that this approach will bring fresh vigor to calls for improved  governance. This will lead to discussion of:

  • the need for review of such research internationally;
  • whether changing the virus in other ways is also a cause for concern;
  • whether any scientific research of this type should be impermissible;
  • whether  certain ‘less risky’ research approaches should be favoured;
  • the best model for reviewing such research of concern;
  • the nature of stipulations which should be attached to research during the review process;
  • implications of this recent case for other fields of potential concern.

Brett Edwards is based at the University of Bath and is working on a ESRC and DSTL project  examining S&T review within the CWC and BWC. He is also working on his PhD which  examines the governance of dual-use aspects of synthetic biology, in the US and the UK.  Brett has also worked  as a research officer on a Foreign and Commonwealth Office funded project on S&T review within the  BWC. Recently, he also completed a research fellowship  at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.  Brett has a dual undergraduate background in Biology and Politics, and holds an MA in Biotechnological Law and Ethics.

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