Everybody was bird flu fighting: Mutated virus exposes coordination challenges

By Scott Rosenstein

In November and December of 2011, two teams of researchers submitted papers to Science and Nature magazines, apparently revealing the mutations necessary to make H5N1 avian influenza (a.k.a. bird flu) easily transmissible among humans. In its current form, the virus is exceedingly difficult for people to catch. If a beefed-up version were to circulate outside a lab while maintaining its lethality, though, the ensuing pandemic would likely be devastating. The scientists' research launched a heated debate, and on Jan. 20, 39 scientists announced a 60-day moratorium on all avian flu transmission research. But in a world where rapid gains in technology and scientific knowledge have made virus manipulation available to an expanding cohort -- some with less-than-honorable intentions -- that probably won't be enough time for policymakers and scientists to strike a balance between security and pandemic preparedness.

As Laurie Garrett has detailed in Foreign Policy, security experts worry that the information in the pending papers, or even the existence of the mutated virus in a lab, poses a security threat that outweighs the possible benefits of identifying the pathogen strain early and developing vaccines and antivirals to beat it. Scientists, meanwhile, argue that censoring scientific inquiry sets a dangerous precedent, while doing little to diminish the capabilities of nefarious actors. One of the first questions to ask, therefore, is who might those actors be, and would bird flu really be their weapon of choice?

The most obvious candidate is al-Qaeda. The terrorist group is struggling to reassert itself after the death of Osama bin Laden and has expressed interest in staging a biological attack. Hillary Clinton, in her Dec. 7 speech in Geneva, singled out the group's recent call to arms for "brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry to develop a weapon of mass destruction." But bird flu may not be the best choice here. Flu spreads fast, circumnavigating the globe multiple times a year, and making it a less-than-ideal weapon if your target is a specific population or geography.

If you were hoping to target all of humanity, bird flu could be more attractive. And since doomsday agendas tend to be associated with misfits and loners, it's worth asking: Would an individual be able to unleash bird flu alone? The details of the studies remain shrouded, but there is reason to believe that developing a lethal virus might be possible for those with access to the necessary technology and a relatively basic background in genetic engineering. Perhaps not the most common educational path for would-be terrorists, but the situation is worrying nonetheless -- particularly as the necessary technology becomes more widespread and easier to use.

Increasingly accessible technology presents another concern, one that doesn't require a nefarious actor: a lab accident. Virus leaks certainly happen, as demonstrated by an Ebola incident in Russia and SARS in Singapore. Both sides of the debate agree that we need better global coordination on bioweapons and biosafety. But the 1972 U.N. Biological Weapons Convention is outdated and mostly unenforceable, and the basic definitions and protocols for biosafety around the world are far from standardized, creating gaps that could allow negligent or suspect activities to go unnoticed.

So now what? Per the suggestion of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a U.S. agency tasked with issuing guidance on potentially dangerous experiments, both bird flu papers will likely be published soon, with significant methodological components redacted. This compromise has satisfied neither side, and in the meantime, the World Health Organization (WHO) is planning to hold a summit on the issue. But a two-month research moratorium and a WHO summit are unlikely to be sufficient. WHO is the most logical arena for the discussion and could help diffuse criticism that the U.S. is dominating the debate. But massive funding shortfalls at the organization and the security risks at play could stymie their efforts. So while the doomsday scenario remains a fat tail risk, improved international coordination will likely remain challenging, as a diverse set of actors navigate mostly uncharted political and scientific territory.

Scott Rosenstein is a director in Eurasia Group’s global health practice.