Super-Flu: Controversy Brews Over Scientists' Creation of Killer Viruses


Articles Not Published The scientific community anxiously anticipated learning about the details of the experiments. What exactly had Fouchier and Kawaoka done? How had Fouchier manipulated the bird flu virus? And, most of all, must the medical community now fear that the natural bird flu virus will develop in similar ways? Scientists hoped to find answers to these questions in findings that were to be published in the scientific magazines Nature and Science.

But the articles were not published. Officials from the NSABB had called the magazines' executive editors to prevent their publication. Because of the potential risk that the newly created bird flu viruses could be used as biological weapons, the organization asked the journals not to publish Kawaoka's and Fouchier's results, or at least not in their entirety.

This suddenly puts Fouchier at the center of an explosive controversy over biosecurity and academic freedom. Should scientists be allowed to create artificial viruses and bacteria, even if they are dangerous to human beings? What safety standards should be applied to their work? And should their controversial results be published, or is the risk too great that they will be misused as instructions to make biological weapons?

The debate has caused two opposing worlds to collide. The virologists, on the one side, suspect that the bioterrorism watchdogs are being paranoid. The terrorism experts, on the other, feel that the scientists are simply naïve.

'A Door Has Been Pushed Open'

The NSABB censorship came as a shock to most influenza researchers. "I've never seen anything like this," says Hans-Dieter Klenk, an influenza expert in the German city of Marburg. His colleague Stephan Ludwig, a virologist at the University of Münster in northwest Germany, sees the move as a threat to scientific freedom. "A door has been pushed open here that won't be so easy to close again," he says.

For many of the scientists, the idea that terrorists could misuse their viruses as weapons is simply absurd. "If I wanted to kill a lot of people, I would rent a truck, fill it with gasoline and fertilizer and blow it up," Fouchier says testily. Reinhard Burger, president of Berlin's Robert Koch Institute, Germany's federal institution for disease control and prevention, says: "I think the risk of misuse by terrorists is low."

Michael Osterholm, the most prominent member of the NSABB, completely disagrees. "I don't think it's a question of whether terrorists will use infectious pathogens to kill innocent civilians," he says. "It's just a question of when and how they do it."

High-Level Pressure

Osterholm can feel confident that he has support from the highest levels of the US government. Last December, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise appearance at the annual biological weapons convention in Geneva. Such a high-ranking US official had not attended the event in decades.

Clinton spoke of "warning signals," even "evidence" that al-Qaida was trying to recruit "brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry." "The nature of the problem is changing," she told the delegates. "A crude, but effective, terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of any number of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment and college-level chemistry and biology."

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