As the first molecular evidence emerges that the H5N1 ‘bird flu’ virus from human patients matches that of environmental samples taken from live bird markets in China, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosafety has given its advice on publication of recipe for making a ‘weaponised’ (ferretised?) H5N1 strain.
And the recommendation is? That the work be published but without the methods and other details which would allow someone to replicate the experiments. They also recommend the authors better explain the goals and potential public health benefits of the research, and the measures taken to protect laboratory workers and the public. They have also suggested that the powers that be try to work out a system by which those who ‘need-to-know’ are given the important details.
It’s good that the NSABB have emphasised how important the research is, but who is going to decide who falls in the ‘need-to-know’ category?
While everyone is focusing on the ‘rogue’ elements who may want to use the strain as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’, in reality, a ‘weaponised’ form of H5N1 may already be brewing in nature. It’s therefore crucial that those monitoring the viruses circulating in the environment know what mutations to look out for. As the mutations are likely to occur in a stepwise fashion, knowing where the viruses are on the path to ‘weapon of mass destruction’ is important for predicting when the ubervirus may actually arise.
While the 5 mutations that ‘ferretise’ H5N1 may not be common knowledge, the fact they arose after repeatedly infecting ferrets is public knowledge. If someone was set on weaponising H5N1, they could easily start from scratch using a virus isolated from an infected person or bird and some ferrets. Suppressing the data from scientists won’t prevent this.