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Medicine Biotech

Paper On Super Flu Strain May Be Banned From Publication 754

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the secret-dolphin-plot-to-overthrow-opressors dept.
Pierre Bezukhov writes with this excerpt from an article at Doctor Tipster: "A Dutch researcher has created a virus with the potential to kill half of the planet's population. Now, researchers and experts in bioterrorism debate whether it is a good idea to publish the virus creation 'recipe'. However, several voices argue that such research should have not happened in the first place. The virus is a strain of avian influenza H5N1 genetically modified to be extremely contagious ... created by researcher Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center Rotterdam, Netherlands. The work was first presented at a conference dedicated to influenza that took place in September in Malta."
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Paper On Super Flu Strain May Be Banned From Publication

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  • Peh. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by unity100 (970058) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:22PM (#38197320) Homepage Journal
    Someone has probably already crafted a similar version in a distant private or military research lab anyway. Its better that it got out and fixes are prepared.
    • Re:Peh. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:25PM (#38197352)

      If it got out the 'fix' may be natural selection.

      • Re:Peh. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by paper tape (724398) on Monday November 28, 2011 @11:30PM (#38198812)
        This sort of thing is why I've been saying for the last few years that I am far more concerned about terrorists with bioweapons than terrorists with nukes. The bioweapons are cheaper and easier to make, the raw materials easier to obtain, and the consequences of use potentially far more severe.
        • by Stonefish (210962) on Tuesday November 29, 2011 @06:23AM (#38200518)

          There are a couple of points related to this.
          1 You're not particularly good at assessing risk. Do the maths on people killed by disease and people killed by terrorists
          2 There is a history of the flu virus turning lethal. Spanish flu and earlier history of extremely deadly pandemics.
          3 This study demonstrates breeding a better pathogen using natural means using traits that already exist.
          4 Vaccines for flu type virus are very effective.
          5 Exposure to a similar flu virus or vaccine confers some immunity.
          6 Agents that boost the immune response to vaccines confer an even broader immunity

          The point is that government should be preparing broad spectum bird flu vaccines and allowing people to put their hands up to get them as the risk of this type of virus arising naturally is high. This study demonstrates this are fact.

          CSIRO, an Australian research organisation released research relating to mouse pox virus modifications that created a deadly virus precisely because it was hoped that it would lead to better treatments. They also surmised that governments around the world already knew about this but had kept it secret.
          http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/001755.html

      • Re:Peh. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Baseclass (785652) on Tuesday November 29, 2011 @01:34AM (#38199506)
        Witness the makings of the Fermi paradox in all it's glory.
    • Re:Peh. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Aerorae (1941752) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:29PM (#38197388)
      Agreed. This merely shows the rest of us that not only CAN it be done, but that it HAS been done and certainly CAN be done in the future!

      Hiding the information just gives those who want to keep it all for themselves more time to do awful things.
      • Re:Peh. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Dzimas (547818) on Monday November 28, 2011 @11:42PM (#38198876)
        Modded Insightful? Disseminating this research simply assists anyone insane enough to create and release a similar strain into the wild. Knowledge doesn't grant biological immunity. You'll just have a better cognitive grasp of what's killing you.
      • Re:Peh. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968@@@gmail...com> on Monday November 28, 2011 @11:49PM (#38198918) Journal

        "You know why we haven't detected any aliens? why we haven't picked up broadcasts of I Love Lucy starring three headed people? Its because of this, they get to this point in their evolution and then they destroy themselves"..The Outer Limits: Final Exam [wikipedia.org]

        In that episode it was a cold fusion bomb but the sentiment is the same. With technological progress comes increased danger and if one makes a leap or breakthrough in one place then as you pointed out others are already on that path, and as the technology becomes easier and cheaper and the knowledge more widely available all it takes is one nut with a cause and the right technological know how to create a recipe for a worldwide holocaust.

        Imagine just getting on a plane while carrying this superflu in say London? How far would you have it spread before you were no longer able to continue?

    • Re:Peh. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by artor3 (1344997) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:44PM (#38197562)

      So just because some (likely stable) government has it, we should give it to all comers? That's absolutely insane. Distrust the US government all you want, but they are far less likely to release a superflu into the wild than some random nutjob with a biology degree and an axe to grind.

      • Re:Peh. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by evil_aaronm (671521) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:59PM (#38197688)

        Three words: Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

        • Re:Peh. (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Jhon (241832) on Monday November 28, 2011 @09:33PM (#38197994) Homepage Journal

          Three more words: Apples and Oranges.

          Not to excuse the inexcusable, but to deliberately fail to treat disease with very limited communicability and long incubation period is hardly the same is releasing Captain Trips... While I might think my country can make some pretty stupid choices, they aren't the kind that would destroy civilization.

        • Re:Peh. (Score:4, Insightful)

          by ScentCone (795499) on Monday November 28, 2011 @11:25PM (#38198780)

          Three words: Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

          You're right. It's high time that the administration that was responsible for that episode was finally voted out of office. It's hard to believe that - after all these decades - they're still setting such policies, and still running those sorts of tests.

    • Re:Peh. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MrBigInThePants (624986) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:48PM (#38197602)

      I agree, obfuscation is not security.

      Wait...did I post this in the right topic??

    • Its better that it got out and fixes are prepared.

      Sure - AS LONG AS the "fixes" (e.g. antidote or vaccine) are engineered, produced and ready for distribution BEFORE such info gets out.

      Moreover, if you're going to take the prerogative of developing a bioweapon with the capability of causing mass casualties, it's also your responsibility to secure funding for inoculating or treating everyone affected. Just recently there was an outcry here [slashdot.org] about the government spending $433M on smallpox treatment in the event of an outbreak. If this is as dangerous as the

    • by perpenso (1613749) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:49PM (#38197616)

      Someone has probably already crafted a similar version in a distant private or military research lab anyway. Its better that it got out and fixes are prepared.

      Actually various independently crafted versions may be different enough that a "cure" for one is ineffective against another.

      • by JoeMerchant (803320) on Monday November 28, 2011 @10:09PM (#38198244)

        Someone has probably already crafted a similar version in a distant private or military research lab anyway. Its better that it got out and fixes are prepared.

        Actually various independently crafted versions may be different enough that a "cure" for one is ineffective against another.

        True enough, but having practice in developing "solutions" for dozens of similar problems is a lot better than starting from sulfa drugs and trying to work your way up.

    • Re:Peh. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by chrb (1083577) on Monday November 28, 2011 @09:27PM (#38197942)
      A modified version of the flu isn't much use to the military, for the same reasons that bio-weapons in general aren't much use: they are unreliable in war, attack an overly-broad segment of the population, and liable to spread contagion amongst friend and foe alike. They aren't much use for terrorists either: the majority of terrorism is geo-political in nature ("we want our land", "we want a different government", "stop hurting our friends" etc.). Terrorists generally want to target specific sub-populations of the human species, whether that sub-population be defined by nationality, ethnicity, wealth etc. Weapons that attack everybody equally are not really useful for that purpose. The exception here is Doomsday cults, who do exist, but represent a very small percentage of the world's population. We can only hope that they do not get the resources necessary to genetically engineer a high-lethality virus.
      • Re:Peh. (Score:4, Insightful)

        by mbkennel (97636) on Monday November 28, 2011 @10:23PM (#38198342)

        "Terrorists generally want to target specific sub-populations of the human species, whether that sub-population be defined by nationality, ethnicity, wealth etc."

        yes, their massive car bombs are exceptionally precise.

    • Re:Peh. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mbkennel (97636) on Monday November 28, 2011 @09:43PM (#38198070)

      This is false. It is not like a computer patch.

      The fix may be a vaccine against one particular instantiation---and deploying vaccines to 7 billion people for a virus which doesn't exist naturally is a big and expensive problem. There's no such thing as auto-update. This is real and expensive and will take away resources from other things which could also improve people's help. Any failures mean people, like your family, will die.

      The real danger is that the techniques and insight involved could be used to make a wide variety of weaponizable viruses, in which case one might face a wave of dangerous viruses each of which is not covered by the previous's virusweapon's vaccine. These waves would sweep faster than vaccines could be isolated and produced (which for influenza is about 9 months to a year---for this you have to count proven manufacturing not some future hope of how something might work). How fast can Dr Evil produce new sequences? A bunch faster.

      If the description of the research is accurate, this is like publishing a paper on how to manufacture, and mass-produce thermonuclear weaponry with the tech available in a typical university lab, without using any expensive fissile nuclear materials or isotopic separation. What a wonderful world.

  • So... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:22PM (#38197326)

    ...that is what will happen to the 99%

  • by bradorsomething (527297) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:23PM (#38197342)
    Dr. Fouchier could not be reached at his volcano-based research facility for comment.
  • by Konster (252488) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:23PM (#38197344)

    The zombie apocalypse awaits.

  • M-O-O-N (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:28PM (#38197372)

    That spells life imitating art!

  • by Todd Knarr (15451) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:29PM (#38197386) Homepage

    If it was done, the information's out there. If the work's already been presented at a conference, it's pretty much a guarantee the black-hats have it. And if they don't already, they know it can be done and they've got enough clues to know where to go looking. So the question isn't whether we give the black-hats the information or not, it's whether only the black-hats get the information or whether the white-hats get it too. I'd rather have the information circulated so doctors and public health systems know what to look for and how to treat it when it shows up.

    • by Hartree (191324) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:40PM (#38197518)

      Exactly. The important info was that the strain can be made to be transmissible by air in mammals.

      That was an open question, and some felt that it was unlikely. Now, it's known that it can be done.

      If you know that it can be done, there are only a limited number of ways it could have been done. Now, you just have to figure out which. They even outline the basic idea in several places.

      It looks like it was a pretty standard method of passing the virus repeatedly through ferrets to select for those variants best adapted.

      There may be a few nuances, but now that it's been done just about any lab that works on that strain with ferrets for test animals can probably repeat the work even without further info.

    • by pesho (843750) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:42PM (#38197534)
      My thoughts exactly. If you know it can be done it is fairly trivial to make it happen. The only caveat is that if you are going to do it you better have a BSL4 containment. Otherwise you will end up eating your own dog food, before anyone else has had a chance to try it. The important information from this work as far as I can deduce from the limited information being released is that now we know what kind of changes can make the virus more aggressive. This can be used to monitor the virus in the wild and catch potential pandemics before the virus has jumped on humans. It will also give us head start in making vaccines. All this makes it imperative that it gets published.
    • by artor3 (1344997) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:42PM (#38197546)

      That's your assumption. I'd rather we operate under the assumption that the black-hats don't have it. First of all, that seems more likely (it's not as though the full recipe would be presented at a conference), and secondly the penalty for releasing it if they don't have it is much worse than the penalty for withholding it if they do have it.

      Possibilities:

      00) Black hats don't have it, we don't release it. Very Good! No one has to die.
      01) Black hats don't have it, we do release it. Very Bad! We just gave the tools for murder on an unprecedented scale to everyone who wants them.
      10) Black hats have it, we don't release it. Bad. When and if they use it, we will be somewhat delayed while we realize "Hey, there's this new superflu that seems a lot like the one that Dutch guy came up with."
      11) Black hats have it, we do release it. Maybe good. We save some time researching cures, at the cost of making the recipe even more available than it already is (and thus saving the bad guys some time obtaining it).

      Make your own little game theory chart. Unless there is a very high probability that they have it, we're better off not releasing it. And as I said before, they likely don't have the whole thing.

      I know this is Slashdot and a lot of people think that information wants to be free, but trust me on this. The information doesn't give a shit. Some things really should be kept secret.

      • by forkfail (228161) on Monday November 28, 2011 @09:02PM (#38197718)

        Remember that knowing something can be done is often 90% of the battle.

        So, while your assumption that they don't have it now may well be valid, it won't be in 5-10 years. Thus, probably a good idea to get the white hats working on counter measures now, which means (by your own logic) that it should be published.

      • by pesho (843750) on Monday November 28, 2011 @09:13PM (#38197808)

        That's your assumption. I'd rather we operate under the assumption that the black-hats don't have it. First of all, that seems more likely (it's not as though the full recipe would be presented at a conference), and secondly the penalty for releasing it if they don't have it is much worse than the penalty for withholding it if they do have it.

        Your assumptions are one sided. There is enough information to make the virus. The influenza virus is well studied and there is a wealth of information down to atomic level in some cases how it functions. We know the genetic background (H5N1), we know that the strain has a combination of naturally occurring mutations, and we know that we can use ferrets to test it. It doesn't take much trial and error to figure out the correct combination. Even if the presented information is misleading, the fact that the virus can be made more aggressive is enough. It is trivial to culture and has very short reproduction cycle,which allows anyone with a little time on their hands to do selective evolution. If they don't publish somebody else will repeat the experiments and publish the data instead. I wouldn't be worried about biotherorists. Making, containing and using bioweapons is hard, dangerous and extremely expensive. You can't cook it in your basement.

    • by pipedwho (1174327) on Monday November 28, 2011 @09:30PM (#38197964)

      The black-hats might have it, but the question is do you really want to release it to all the script-kiddies?

  • by edxwelch (600979) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:31PM (#38197416)

    I can just imagine the practal jokes in that lab.
    My god! the seal on the container has come undone - the virus has excaped!!

    Ha - got you! that's just the box my lunch came in

    • by DeadDecoy (877617)
      Damnit, I knew I shouldn't have switched the labels on you lunch box.
    • I would expect them to have a guy in hazmat suit stand ready with a flamethrower somewhere in the corner of the lab, just for such occasions. "I hope you like your lunch well-done, sir."

  • Yikes (Score:4, Funny)

    by RenHoek (101570) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:33PM (#38197422) Homepage

    Now I don't wanna go to work tomorrow (I work there). :)

    • by ae1294 (1547521)

      Now I don't wanna go to work tomorrow (I work there). :)

      SURPRISE! You're patient zero! You just won free health care for the rest of your life!!!

  • by meerling (1487879) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:34PM (#38197434)
    A few years back some researchers (Australian?) accidentally made an infector much much more dangerous. That's why the scientist need to share this data. It's so they can understand this process and use that knowledge to defeat diseases. It's like getting over a canyon a persistent but ignorant person can eventually succeed by throwing rocks at it till it fills up, but an engineer can design and build a bridge in a fraction of the time and resources.
    With regards to the fears of terrorists, it's not a high probability, most of them wouldn't have the vaguest idea what to do with that information, the few that are left know enough to not be stupid enough to release a superplague on the planet. Your biggest worry should be the Military making a superplague, and being stupid enough to let someone dumb enough to use it actually get access to some of it.

    If you stop research because you are afraid that terrorists might use it, you would have to stop all research of any kind.
    • by artor3 (1344997) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:50PM (#38197624)

      If you stop research because you are afraid that terrorists might use it, you would have to stop all research of any kind.

      That's a nice soundbite, but somehow I find myself opposed to giving terrorists weaponized super-flus, while at the same time not being so worried about them getting access to the latest touch screen technology. I mean, we've already stopped research into human vivisection, and that didn't require us to stop "research of any kind".

      Just a thought, but maybe we can take a step outside of the world of black and white you're painting, and allow all research except that which could destroy human civilization?

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 28, 2011 @09:01PM (#38197710)

        No, it's more along the lines that the barbarians who conquered Rome did so by traveling along Roman roads to get there. One could say, yeah those stupid Romans shouldn't have built those highways, they just gave the terrorists mass transit abilities (i.e., mass transit Iron Age style...) but the Romans used those roads for trade and commerce. The question that's missing here is what this highly contagious flu research is useful for. While it's possible, I highly doubt the guy is a mad scientist, so... who funded him and why? What's the purpose of this research? In the very last paragraph they give the answer:

        On the other hand, if the study becomes available for the scientific community, it could allow researchers to ”be prepared” for a potential H5N1 pandemic. Since Fouchier’s study suggests that the risk for this to occur is greater than previously thought. Some researchers believe that banning the paper will leave mankind helpless if the virus naturally mutates and becomes contagious.

        There you go, if you see a flu virus gaining the five mutations discussed in TFA, you know you're going to be in trouble.

  • Welp (Score:4, Funny)

    by heptapod (243146) <heptapod@gmail.com> on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:36PM (#38197468) Journal
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:38PM (#38197488)

    Lynn Enquist, quoted in the article, reminds me of GLaDOS:

    I find it really, really hard to think about telling people not to do science.

  • Too late (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mortiss (812218) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:41PM (#38197526)
    "A genetic study showed that new virus strain presented five mutations, and all could be also observed in nature - but only separately, not all five combined."
    With this sentence, they have practically gave it away already. All one has to do now is to scan the scientific literature for the appropriate five mutations that confer increased airborne transmissibility, perform site directed mutagenesis and voila.

    They should follow the footsteps of Australian researches (who inserted IL4 gene into the mousepox creating a very lethal strain) and publish this anyway.
  • by gatkinso (15975) on Monday November 28, 2011 @08:50PM (#38197622)

    Don't see why they *need* to publish this work, but if it is done can they atleast wait until they have administered 200 million or so vaccinations?

  • by StikyPad (445176) on Monday November 28, 2011 @09:13PM (#38197806) Homepage

    Obviously the responsible thing to do is to give the vendor time to fix the vulnerability. I propose the researcher submit his findings to God and wait 5-7 days for a response before full disclosure.

  • I'd Say No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RobinEggs (1453925) on Monday November 28, 2011 @09:15PM (#38197838)
    I know half of you are screaming at your monitors that "security through obscurity is no security at all", but security in biological information is not like that of computer code and hardware.

    It all comes down the the breadth and transparency of the ecosystem, in my layman's opinion. It's entirely plausible with, for example, Adobe software running on Windows operating systems to say that if White Hat A found it then certainly Grey Hat B and Mustache Twirling Russian Mafioso Black Hat C will find it or have already found and exploited it. Those are specific, limited, and completely knowable ecosystems invented entirely by humans, however. Of course someone else will find it; the universe in which "it" lives isn't terribly large, when you really look at the situation.

    Biology, on the other hand, is much bigger and much more mysterious; we're far stupider in biology than in any other science. We certainly didn't invent, do not control, and do not understand the ecosystems involved. You know far less from the sentence "I found five mutations that transform a particular H5N1 into a global killer." than you do from the sentence "I found a stack overflow hack in Acrobat which lets me read any pdf the target machine opens."

    In short, security through obscurity actually gets you a very long way in biological research. Not to mention that creating a virus is a lot faster than creating the vaccine; perhaps a substance of which a single vial released in downtown Detroit could kill half the humans on Earth long before the antidote was invented and adequately synthesized isn't the place to object on principle some deliberate obscurity.

    Seriously, look at the way flu vaccines are prepared. Maybe people should argue for the development of a faster way of inventing and growing vaccine (that is to say, faster than trial-and-error monkey testing followed by incubation in chicken eggs) before they request that blueprints for a killer flu become public information.
  • Serial Passage (Score:5, Informative)

    by Guppy (12314) on Monday November 28, 2011 @09:16PM (#38197842)

    This news has been bouncing around the biology world for a few days now. To add some perspective, the "super flu" was created via the technique known as Serial Passage [wikipedia.org], developed by Louis Pasteur. Yup, that Louis Pasteur [tvtropes.org]. All you really need is a sufficiently large colony of ferrets, a source stock of H5N1, and some time -- there is not going to be any secret Atomic-Bomb recipe in the paper, the virus does the hard work itself, via evolution.

    Oh, and by the way... At one of the labs I used to work at, my fellow researchers once were chatting about what the various stereotypes for their colleagues were. I learned that the virologist stereotype among the other researchers was "a little bit crazy". Nightnight.

  • by junglebeast (1497399) on Monday November 28, 2011 @09:29PM (#38197958)

    The concept of publicizing security flaws makes some semblance of sense in the security world, but when it comes to viruses that could wipe out 50% of the world's population...because patches can be easily made and distributed rapidly over the internet.

    When it comes to vaccines, that is NOT the case. It could take years, decades, or possibly never to create a vaccine..or the only vaccines might be too expensive or difficult to distribute on the scale that is necessary.

    With a population of over 7 billion, not ALL rational people, not ALL happy people, I'm sure there are some individuals out there sick enough to want to destroy the human race. By reducing that barrier to entry to...perhaps...little more than the $20 it costs to purchase an online journal...it becomes an immediate death sentence for billions of people.

    So shut the f* up about your ultra forward thinking concept of sharing info on how to kill us all, you sadist.

  • This is crap... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Genda (560240) <mariet.got@net> on Monday November 28, 2011 @09:58PM (#38198180) Journal

    The flu in question is highly responsive to modern flu anti-virals as well as "MODERN MEDICAL TREATMENTS". What made this flu so devastating in the first place was its ability to cause a life threatening immune responses in young healthy adults, ultimately damaging the lungs so badly that victims drowned in their own body fluids. That's why this particular flu devastated healthy 20-somethings when it first spread as a global pandemic.

    An outbreak today could easily be mitigated and seeing as the people most at risk would have viable medical treatments to prevent both spread and lethal complications this flu would be unable to produce the catastrophic effects it created in its first run through the human population.

    The real threat would be an outbreak in a place like Africa, where a large infected population could become a huge bio-reactor evolving the virus into a real monster that was both lethal and untreatable. So our best bet for world pandemics in general are to place special focus on developing nations and make certain they have the resources needed to stop outbreaks of both old and new diseases.

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