Friday, December 23, 2011

Science and Secrecy - Continued

Here are some thoughts on the subject from Michael Eisen, who knows a lot more about building viruses than I do. His uncertainties are worth considering, although I disagree with his bottom line and will explain why.

One of the things I should have written, but didn't, in my previous post (I know, no credit for that!) was that we don't know how well these modified viruses will survive in the real world. It's possible that their modifications also damage their ability to survive in some way. That hasn't been tested. He doesn't address that directly, but I suspect that it's behind this statement (my emphasis):
Although it is impossible to know how this virus would affect humans, its behavior in ferrets establishes a non-trivial possibility that the evolved Rotterdam virus could cause a lethal global pandemic.
He argues that it is likely that the existing virus constitutes more of a danger than that terrorists will develop a similar virus. Laboratory accidents are not unknown, and the incubation period for influenza assures that others would be exposed. But he is working through some arguments on publication of the full preparation of the virus. And I'm not so sure that this comparison is relevant to that argument.

Later in the post, he continues this line of reasoning:
But the thing that really really annoys me about this whole debate, is the disproportionate attention paid to mitigating the risks of these experiments compared to the far greater risks that surround us. It seems insane for a government to spend so much time wringing its hands about publishing the results of a few potentially dangerous experiments, when it does things every day that entail a far, far greater risk to its peoples’ health and well being. For example, we continue to ship massive amounts of arms to sketchy “allies” across the globe, many of which are destined to end up in the hands of terrorists, who would have a far easier time using them against us than they would any H5N1 virus. And we have done little to address the sorry state of our public health infrastructure – something that is an indispensable part of our response to major pathogen outbreaks, whether of natural origin or otherwise. And let’s not even talk about our stubborn refusal to deal with global warming…
I'm weighing into the argument because it's analogous to arguments that have been made regarding nuclear weapons. And we have some experience there with controlling information. I would also argue that the fact that bad, perhaps worse, things happen does not negate our responsibility to deal with the case at hand.

I would argue, however, that controlling specific information about how to do some things is both responsible and effective, and that the history of restricting nuclear weapons information supports this. It is true that knowing that something can be done is useful for someone who wants to repeat that something. But in chemistry (my field) and, I'm sure, in virology, details are enormously important. As the dimensions of nuclear weapons components are necessary for building a bomb, so are the exact mutations and how to arrive at them for the production of these new flu viruses. And that is the information that needs to be held closely.

In the case of nuclear weapons, we can consider the latest wannabe, North Korea. The yields of their nuclear tests suggest that they didn't get all those dimensions to where they wanted them to be. They can probably get closer the next time around. But keeping that information from them made it more difficult for them to build a bomb. And they may well have had the help of A. Q. Khan.

Part of the difficulty is in the handling and preparation of materials. That may account for North Korea's low yields as well as design specs. I think, although I am not quite convinced, that producing a virus to spec is less difficult than producing a nuclear weapon. Producing a virus requires fewer specialized talents, but what I am unsure of is whether keeping from being infected with the virus is more difficult than making sure that the explosives don't blow up as you machine them.

I recognize that free dissemination of information is something of an article of faith for academics today. Certainly censorship can be badly misused. But I think there are two issues here that have to be considered together in a way that extraneous issues like global warming don't need to be. Those issues are the responsibility to avoid harm to the public and the need to maximize the availability of information. I am not sure that the obligations toward informing one's colleagues are at the same level of avoiding harm to the population.

As I've argued the unlikelihood of terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons, I think there is an analogy to their producing this flu virus, with my reservation above that this flu virus may be easier to produce. I agree that the danger lies in the currently existing virus, and would add the danger of some amateur looking to score some points who doesn't properly contain the virus.

And this brings us to another question I had: whether this exercise was genuinely in the pursuit of better ways to deal with viruses or a way to call attention to the researcher. Another quote:
Here’s where things get complicated for me, because truth be told, I think these were really stupid experiments that have little practical value. The ostensible reason for carrying out and publishing these experiments is that they tell us important things about what a human transmissible H5N1 virus will look like, allowing us to better detect and prepare for a future pandemic.

I think this is very wrongheaded, and exhibits an almost willful ignorance of the ways that viruses in general, and flu in particular, evolve. RNA viruses like flu have very high mutation rates, and sample an astonishing diversity of variant sequences even in the course of infecting a single individual. The best demonstration of this is the rapidity with which drug-resistant strains emerge whenever any of the available anti-influenza drugs are used. It is because of the rapid emergence of resistance that use of these drugs is largely restricted to managing outbreaks in places with highly susceptible individuals, like nursing homes.
For me, this tips the balance, along with the history of restricting nuclear weapons information. Eisen remains unconvinced:
But I remain uneasy that the quick censorship trigger being pulled here with the easy acquiescence of most of the scientific community augurs future restrictions on science that will do real harm to one of the few things with the potential to protect us from deadly viruses and the other real and imagined perils of our future.

Update: Ivan Oransky argues that removing some information from these papers isn't censorship.

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