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Researchers, Biosecurity Board Debate How Open Virus Research Should Be 66

Posted by timothy
from the what-price-progress dept.
New submitter rackeer writes "Exchanging research results is at the heart of the scientific method. However, there are concerns about whether investigations of pandemics, which possibly constitute a threat to the whole population of earth, should be shared. The debate about research on the avian flu was discussed on Slashdot before. Now the main parties have their own two cents to say. On-line at the journal Science are commentaries both by authors of the paper in question, who went ahead with the publication, and by the national advisory board for biosecurity, which advised against publishing."
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Researchers, Biosecurity Board Debate How Open Virus Research Should Be

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  • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Friday February 10, 2012 @06:33PM (#39001387) Homepage

    From the Biohazards committee:

    Recently, several scientific research teams have achieved some success in isolating influenza A/H5N1 viruses that are transmitted efficiently between mammals, in one instance with maintenance of high pathogenicity. This information is very important because, before these experiments were done, it was uncertain whether avian influenza A/H5N1 could ever acquire the capacity for mammal-to-mammal transmission. Now that this information is known, society can take steps globally to prepare for when nature might generate such a virus spontaneously.

    The method they used (serial passage) isn't complex. The identification of the hemoglutinin protein as the determinant for increased infectivity is interesting, but not particularly relevant to someone interested in a "12 Monkeys" scenario.

    Too Late.

    We're doomed.

    • by jhoegl (638955)
      We have been doomed from the start.
      Death by Petri dish, I never saw it coming.
    • From what I've heard, the methods used have been around since Pasteur's day. This particular cat was let out of the bag a loooong time ago.

    • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Friday February 10, 2012 @06:45PM (#39001511) Homepage

      Another interesting quote:

      The life sciences have reached a crossroads. The direction we choose and the process by which we arrive at this decision must be undertaken as a community and not relegated to small segments of government, the scientific community, or society. Physicists faced a similar situation in the 1940s with nuclear weapons research, and it is inevitable that other scientific disciplines will also do so.

      Sure worked for limiting nuclear weapons proliferation. Actually, it didn't, of course. The big difference between nuclear physics and biology is that the latter is thought to require less infrastructure than the former. This would make it more likely that a non state actor / random psychopath millionaire could obtain the needed equipment and skill set and go off to terrorize the world.

      While likely true - a couple of million dollars could by you a nice lab and the post doctoral level talent to run it - it's not clear that you could appreciably slow down research by simply not posting experimental details. Once you post the results, the details can be left as an exercise for the student. If you decide to limit research entirely you risk being blind sided by someone who hasn't been so constrained.

      • by msheekhah (903443)
        The White Plague, Frank Herbert?
      • by Un pobre guey (593801) on Friday February 10, 2012 @07:15PM (#39001807) Homepage

        This "controversy" is largely driven by War on Terror scammers who want to 1) set up a bureaucratic lobbyist-driven police state gravy train, and 2) loot the treasury using War on Terror hype as a pretext, much as they have done with Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Iran. If you think that it is a new phenomenon to use the results of scientific research for nefarious purposes, or that the only major precedent is nuclear arms proliferation you are quite mistaken. Next time you have a few hours of free time and are near a university chemistry library with a hard-copy of Chemical Abstracts that goes back 100 years or so, I highly recommend browsing through it looking for the nastiest substances you can think of. They're in there, recipes and all.

        We really need to stop believing all that horse shit just because some pompous windbag politician says it's true. Scientists, who know the literature, are justifiably reticent to cooperate with that crap unless their political aspirations demand it.

        • If you think that it is a new phenomenon to use the results of scientific research for nefarious purposes, or that the only major precedent is nuclear arms proliferation you are quite mistaken. Next time you have a few hours of free time and are near a university chemistry library with a hard-copy of Chemical Abstracts that goes back 100 years or so, I highly recommend browsing through it looking for the nastiest substances you can think of. They're in there, recipes and all.

          There is a tad of a difference between a chemical or nuclear WMD that requires you to successfully deliver and activate it to where it has most effect - usually in places where security is relatively higher - and the one where you can infect a few people and then have it propagate all by itself, very rapidly at that.

          • by Phernost (899816) on Friday February 10, 2012 @09:07PM (#39002453)

            It's the excuse that is inexcusable. Anyone who wishes to make use of this, or other research, has to have a lab and funding, whether nefarious or not. If you have that level of resources, you can bribe people, infiltrate, recreate the research from scratch, etc. Pretending that hiding the information from general scientific publication is a form of security is delusional at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

            • Yes, I agree that the cat is out of the bag already, and this all smells of a security theatre. Just pointing out that this particular case is considerably different from nuclear or chemical weapon (or double use) research in the past, in a sense of how easy it may be to use for nefarious purpose with a very prominent effect.

            • by mapkinase (958129)

              >If you have that level of resources, you can bribe people, infiltrate, recreate the research from scratch, etc.

              You omitted a very important "if": "...and if you care"

              Bioweapons are hugely exaggerated as a viable source of terror. Nobody ever used it with results even remotely close to the terror induced by conventional explosives.

          • by Un pobre guey (593801) on Friday February 10, 2012 @09:12PM (#39002469) Homepage

            I get your point, but I suspect you are missing mine. Forget nuclear weapons, they are a red herring in the current discussion. It is a huge stretch of the imagination to expect that "terrorists" can cause a pandemic with virus genetically engineered in a lab. It is far too expensive and there are myriad factors that decelerate pandemics, which is why they are so rare. More to my point, that there is plenty of knowledge already accumulated over several generations, "terrorists" would be better off getting virus samples from several origins in the field (e.g. pig and chicken farms) and crossing them in Third World pig and chicken ranches at random, the more strains mixed in the better. That would eventually yield highly infectious strains by ordinary natural selection. They could then harvest samples from locations where the most people got cross infected and do it again, iterating until they have some suitably nasty specimens. Scientific censorship is a moot point. More than enough information is out there for all sorts of mischief, whether nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC). This "controversy" is plain old propaganda for the purposes of political manipulation, career advancement, and corruption, nothing more. We should stop believing this shit.

            Also, don't underestimate the stuff in Chemical Abstracts and related sources.

            • It is a huge stretch of the imagination to expect that "terrorists" can cause a pandemic with virus genetically engineered in a lab. It is far too expensive

              But the whole point of this research was to prove that the virus can naturally mutate to the final state in the wild, it will just take it longer to do so. That's precisely why they didn't do gene splicing and such. So it shouldn't actually be all that hard to reproduce, especially if you aren't concerned much about safety.

              use a pandemic with virus genetically engineered in a lab. It is far too expensive and there are myriad factors that decelerate pandemics, which is why they are so rare. More to my point, that there is plenty of knowledge already accumulated over several generations, "terrorists" would be better off getting virus samples from several origins in the field (e.g. pig and chicken farms) and crossing them in Third World pig and chicken ranches at random, the more strains mixed in the better. That would eventually yield highly infectious strains by ordinary natural selection. They could then harvest samples from locations where the most people got cross infected and do it again, iterating until they have some suitably nasty specimens.

              Are you trying to get Slashdot censored? ~

              (though the geek in me does wonder how many NSA keyword alarms you have just triggered by that post, and how many more will get triggered by me q

              • Are you trying to get Slashdot censored? ~

                (though the geek in me does wonder how many NSA keyword alarms you have just triggered by that post, and how many more will get triggered by me quoting it)

                Now that's disturbing.

        • Completely agree. The (relative) absence of bioterror attacks confirms that their concerns are fabulously unwarranted.
      • by Hentes (2461350)

        Sure worked for limiting nuclear weapons proliferation. Actually, it didn't, of course.

        Because humanity is dead and we live in a postapocalyptic distopia? I'm not saying it worked without any glitches, but the fact that humanity, against all odds, survived the cold war and the times after it without eradicating itself pretty much proves that that nuclear proliferation was succesful in preventing nuclear weapons falling into the hands of irresponsible parties.

        Comparing biological weapons to nuclear ones is pointless, as there are more differences than similarities. Aside from the prohibitive c

  • were doomed (Score:3, Interesting)

    by FudRucker (866063) on Friday February 10, 2012 @06:42PM (#39001489)
    sooner or later some scientist is going to kill most the planet by a malicious release or careless negligence, it is not "if" but "when".
    • Do you have any support for your assertion, other than Luddite paranoia?

      • by FudRucker (866063)
        nope, just Luddite paranoia and negativity, and I am a fairly good judge of human nature
        • nope, just Luddite paranoia and negativity

          Well, thanks for being honest. ;)

          and I am a fairly good judge of human nature

          People who say things like that generally seem to mean, "I assume all people are just like me."

          • by Anonymous Coward

            And statistically speaking they are probably right !

          • by FudRucker (866063)
            RE:"People who say things like that generally seem to mean, "I assume all people are just like me.""

            you know the old saying, "It takes one to know one" there ya go
          • by Hentes (2461350)

            No, he assumes that at least one person is a bad one. Also, with potentially dangerous things such as this, preparing for the worst-case scenario is not irrational.

      • by ChatHuant (801522)

        sooner or later some scientist is going to kill most the planet by a malicious release or careless negligence, it is not "if" but "when".

        Do you have any support for your assertion, other than Luddite paranoia?

        Well, I think his assertion can be reasonably argued for, and the arguments should be looked at before dismissing the whole thing as Luddite paranoia. Let's compare the nuclear industry and the biological technologies currently being developed - I'll even ignore the intentional release of biological agents, and just consider the risk of accidents.

        The first factor is the number of potential accident sites. Look at the difference in accessibility: nuclear technology requires expensive materials, and highly sp

  • by meerling (1487879) on Friday February 10, 2012 @06:50PM (#39001575)
    Science is progressing at a reasonable pace BECAUSE scientists share data, results, ideas, etc. If you limit or remove that capability, you will be wiping out a large portion of the creative and lateral thinking that often leads to new methods, as well as create much more waste of resources due to duplication of effort. And when you are dealing with something that involves infection rates, you really want MORE research on it, how else can you gain the knowledge to apply to real situations.

    Can something like this be used in a combat or terrorist situation? Yes, but it can also be used to develop countermeasures as well. Besides, there isn't any invention of mankinds that wasn't used to further the ways and means of violence. Medicine, to keep your troops healthy and useful. Food Preservation, to conquer foreign lands. (In fact, that's why Napoleon paid people to develop it.), Vehicles and other means of transportation, you have to get your troops their. HIghways and roads, you have to get them their quickly. (Both the USA and the Roman Empire built their major roads for that purpose, the boost to trade was just a favorable byproduct.), etc.

    So if you want to ban research from being shared among the scientists in that field just because it might be used for non-peaceful purposes, then you'll just have to ban everything. And hey, once you've thrown a tablecloth over one genie lamp, it gets a lot easier to justify doing it again. After all, it's just one more...
    • by meerling (1487879)
      sorry about the bad grammar and misspellings. (Like their when I meant there.)
    • Can something like this be used in a combat or terrorist situation? Yes, but it can also be used to develop countermeasures as well.

      Well, the argument from the biosecurity board essentially boils down to "there are no efficient countermeasures to this". In other words, they're claiming that we don't have any meaningful defense against this except for security though obscurity to buy off some time to better prepare to mitigate the consequences.

    • by grumbel (592662)

      Science is progressing at a reasonable pace BECAUSE scientists share data, results, ideas, etc.

      So should the Manhattan project have shared it's data with Nazi Germany? It might sure have speed up the science, but it might also have let to London getting nuked.

      Can something like this be used in a combat or terrorist situation? Yes, but it can also be used to develop countermeasures as well.

      The little problem with that is that we are getting to a point where an attack requires nothing more then a few thousands dollars and a mail order at your next biotech company, while a countermeasure might require billions of dollars and decades of work. So a little caution might not be such a bad idea.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      This is a bit demagogue. By the same logic, one could just say: "Science is progressing at a reasonable pace BECAUSE there are people who can become scientists. If you limit or remove humans, you will be wiping out a large portion of the creative and lateral thinking that often leads to new methods."

      So if you want to ban research from being shared among the scientists in that field just because it might be used for non-peaceful purposes, then you'll just have to ban everything. And hey, once you've thrown a tablecloth over one genie lamp, it gets a lot easier to justify doing it again. After all, it's just one more...

      This again. Just because you think in black and white, you assume that everyone else does.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ... will be more devastating then natural ones? After all evolution has had millions of years to experiment, not only that there is massive counter-offensive known as immune system and all sorts of other interactions that are not tractable to human minds. Why should anyone assume a pandemic will 'spread out of control' especially with modern facilities? The same thing was thought about nano technology, also known as "grey goo". Why would virus's be any different then 'grey goo' considering how bad human

    • No one has ever built the kind of nanotechnological mechanisms that would be capable of self replication, much less "grey goo". Thus, without working examples of nano-machinery, we don't actually know if grey goo is a real risk or not. Every thing we have ever discovered about fundamental physics and working mechanisms in life says that self-replicating nanotechnology IS possible. Existing life is a working example of it. However, the engineering and technical barriers to building some are very large, a

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Nature cannot predict the future. Pandemic-capable mutations happen all the time. Sometimes they fizzle out before they spread. Other times they out fizzle out after they've spread. But nature isn't thinking, "hey, this allele doesn't make for a good survival strategy right now, so I'll just shelve that one for later." Rather, the way it works is, the allele occurs, competes, and either wins, loses, or finds an equilibrium in the gene pool. End of story.

        The same applies to grey goo. Nature surely has genera

      • by cforciea (1926392)

        Biological viruses are a different scenario. They are not hard to make, and while the chance of an accidental escape is low, if one WERE to happen and to reach a major hub, control would be impossible. Nature will not evolve organisms in the directions of deadly pandemics because evolutionary forces act against this sort of thing. However, doing it on purpose is straightforward and quite easy (the tough part is actually making the genetic changes actually stick in the real lab, but the code changes are not very complex at all)

        Nature is less likely to evolve in the direction of deadly pandemics, but that does not make it impossible. We've already seen a flu virus evolve in such a way that it spread orthogonally to normal evolutionary pressures to deadly effect in the influenza plague of 1918. You just need a microcosm to generate abnormal pressures for a while before spreading it to the population at large to cause significant devastation. Also, don't forget that while evolution takes place somewhat predictable on middle-range ti

        • What I mean is, an engineered virus could have a number of changes that were essentially impossible to arise by chance. You could mix in alleles borrowed from otherwise incompatible cell types, custom code, complex features taken from other viruses, etc. Random chance COULD cause these kinds of things to happen, but evolutionary pressure wouldn't cause them to happen, and complex changes can be such that they never will occur by chance before the stars burn out.

        • Let me give an example of an "on purpose" change. You could add extra proteins to the virus, that ONLY when present in a human cell with a specific messenger RNA, the messenger RNA would bind to a receptor site on the protein and activate it. This protein would cause the infected human cell to express a gene that would cause it to produce and export some product. I like steroids for this because they don't depend on external receptors that the immune system can detect. So suppose you have the infected c

          • You could add extra proteins to the virus, that ONLY when present in a human cell with a specific messenger RNA, the messenger RNA would bind to a receptor site on the protein and activate it. This protein would cause the infected human cell to express a gene that would cause it to produce and export some product. I like steroids for this because they don't depend on external receptors that the immune system can detect. So suppose you have the infected cells producing a variant of testosterone borrowed from an animal, or some other steroid.

            But what would that do for sports? You come down with the flu once, and later you're outperforming athletes who don't juice.

            (no, turning them into zombies is probably not technically possible)

            Toxoplasmosis already causes zombie symptoms [cracked.com], so I'd beg to differ with your assessment of "probably not technically possible".

      • I don't personally think the grey goo apocalypse has real merit. You need to ignore some fundamental physics and the fact that life is already grey goo.

        Let e.coli replicate at its max rate, and its the mass of planet earth in something like a week. Of course this does not happen for a number of fundamental physical reasons.
        1. Excrement! The source materiel must be precisely in the right proportions so that subsequent generations don't end up trying to eat it's parents crap. More importantly crap will have
        • Here's the counter-argument. I'm aware of these objections.

          ACTUALLY, all life on this planet has a nasty case of "version lock-in". For the last 3 billion years or so, the codebase that all life depends on has been full. Every 3 base sequence already has a corresponding codon, so there's no room left for new amino acids. And, translation of the codebase for any organism would require a computing mechanism to take all 3 codon bases and translate them into an equivalent in an expanded base system (say 4 c

  • by retroworks (652802) on Friday February 10, 2012 @07:29PM (#39001887) Homepage Journal
    They had a lot of mustard gases and viral agents developed in WWI, which were never used. But I do feel nervous. Maybe it's not that the weapons are getting more dangerous... maybe the people on the earth are getting worse.
    • by Hentes (2461350)

      They had a lot of mustard gases and viral agents developed in WWI, which were never used.

      But the ones that were used were already more than enough. The reason not to use some wasn't morality, but because other gases proved to be more efficient.

  • by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) on Friday February 10, 2012 @07:48PM (#39002025) Homepage Journal

    A great deal of modern science comes from the practice of alchemy, which begat chemistry and (less directly) biology. And a lot of what alchemists did looked like what modern scientists do: they had laboratories, they did experiments, they weighed and measured and otherwise quantified their results, they developed theories consistent with their observations. Similarly, modern astronomy and much of physics grew out of the work of astrologers, who, although they obviously couldn't experiment on the subjects of their observation, did take precise, repeated measurements of the apparent motions of celestial bodies, and developed mathematically rigorous models with considerable predictive power.

    So what distinguishes the alchemist or astrologer from the modern scientist? The sharing of knowledge. Alchemy and astrology spread knowledge, if at all, by the apprenticeship system, in which well-respected practicioners would take on a small number of apprentices, swear them to secrecy, and slowly teach them the secrets of (their particular version of) the art, often with considerable penalties for revealing this knowledge to anyone outside the circle; the apprentices would then do the same in turn. The very idea of anything like the modern system of peer-reviewed, widely disseminated publication would have been anathema to them. The walls started to crumble during the late Renaissance period and were more or less completely down by the mid-eighteenth century, and thus modern science was born.

    Since then we've seen incremental improvements, of which the internet and open access -- fought tooth and nail by certain journal publishers, who used to be allies of the scientist's labor of spreading knowledge, but have now become the last gatekeepers of the alchemical worldview -- are among the most recent and the most successful. But the basic idea is centuries old. It's thoroughly tested, and it works, in a way that the old mysticism, for all its occasional brilliance, never could. And any attempt to drag us back to the days of sages locking up their knowledge behind guild walls must be fought tooth and nail, or science itself will be in danger.

    • mod parent up
    • A great deal of modern science comes from the practice of alchemy, which begat chemistry and (less directly) biology...they had laboratories, they did experiments, they weighed and measured and otherwise quantified their results, they developed theories consistent with their observations...

      Say, didn't a great number of Alchemists die of the plague?

      We might get to see a repeat if data is not shared thoughtfully. There is no harm in caution around this.

      • Caution is good. Paranoia isn't. And the best people to determine which is which are the scientists working on the problem themselves.

        • Caution is good. Paranoia isn't

          Paranoia is just another word for "backup plan" and "risk analysis". A little bit of paranoia is healthy and necessary in most things.

          It's good at this point to take a step back and see what makes sense.

  • The development of effective vaccines is the most effective strategy for reducing the potential for loss of life from this virus. This measure will increases the likelihood that you or your loved ones will die from something that could have been prevented.
    There is a real need for the public to actively lobby for reductions in volume of information which governments are restricting "for the common good" as it is having a negative impact upon society's ability to mitigate the associated risks.
    A significant pa

  • On the one hand you don't want the wrong people getting a hold of such data, but on the other hand the more people with the ability to create an effective preventive or curative measure against such organisms have access to the data, the better. Who gets to decide who the right people are and (probably more importantly) who the wrong people are? The US? I wouldn't trust the American Government with my hat. My opinion follows: Science and international politics, to offer a simple solution, should be separate

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      On the one hand you don't want the wrong people getting a hold of such data, but on the other hand the more people with the ability to create an effective preventive or curative measure against such organisms have access to the data, the better.

      A cure would be more dangerous than the virus itself. Without the cure, only the crazy ones would use biological weapons, as they would die with the rest of the world. However, if someone were to develop a cure, they could release the virus while being safe themselves, and being the only ones with the cure would make them de facto leaders of the world. The only solution would be to release all knowledge about the cure, but you can't be sure that the first one to develop it will do so.

  • >Estimates of the impact—including the death toll—of a possible future H5N1 virus pandemic for use in (inter)national pandemic preparedness plans do not generally exceed those of the H1N1 Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.

    This is like saying, "Mom, why do you worry? I can't get less than F for this test."

    >followed by consultation with local biosafety officers and facility managers

    As I suspected this is about US enforcing on other countries their own fear of terrorists as the result of the

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