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Editorial: Threat of Gene Jockeys; Limit Publication on Flu Research

Americans are still in the grip of a scary flu season. Who can forget the alarming headlines about the swift spread and virulence of this year’s bug? Everyone’s still on high alert should someone sneeze or cough on the bus, train, or in a restaurant or office. Violators are dealt with harshly.

Now imagine a flu strain exponentially more contagious and more deadly. Fiction? Hardly. In late 2011, a Dutch scientist announced that he had genetically tweaked one of the world’s most deadly bird flu viruses to make it more contagious to humans. In other words, a doomsday virus spread by a sneeze.

An international furor forced scientists conducting the experiments to back off. They declared a voluntary moratorium while government and research officials debated safety rules.

Now, a year later, that moratorium is about to be lifted in many labs around the world. The U.S. is expected to release new guidelines for researchers within weeks.

The nagging question, however, remains: Is this research safe? Many scientists say it is. The research can be safely done on the virus, known as H5N1, with strict security. Labs, for instance, need layers of security to make sure mutated viruses don’t infect researchers or otherwise escape.

Maybe we’ve seen too many science fiction movies in which killer bugs escape, but we’re skeptical. We’ll take our cue from Dr. Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota influenza expert, who argues for strict limits on publishing details about the mutated H5N1 virus.

“The problem is once the work is done and the decision made to publish it, anyone in the world can (create a mutated virus),” Osterholm told us. “That is the part that hasn’t been addressed. I don’t worry about a U.S.-government supported lab that is under tight review and scrutiny. I worry about this work being done in the University of Podunk.”

Osterholm also frets about “gene jockeys” in Third World animal vaccine manufacturers and do-it-yourself “garage biologists” who might be tempted to recreate the killer virus just to see if they can.

“I think that (publishing details) is providing a blueprint for someone to create a global catastrophe. All you have to do is be wrong once here. You can’t unring this bell. Once it happens, we’re done. It’s out. ... This is a potentially catastrophic event waiting to happen.”

A recent editorial in the journal Nature was also skeptical: “An irreproachable, independent risk-benefit analysis of such research ... is still lacking.”

That should be a flashing red light to policymakers. Yes, we see how these studies could help scientists devise battle plans should H5N1 mutate on its own to become widely contagious — it isn’t right now — or be unleashed by terrorists. Science works best when information is unfettered.

But in this case, we’re with those urging restraint.

“If smallpox or SARS is accidentally released today, I’m confident that we have the tools that we could bring a global transmission under control within several months,” Osterholm told us. “But we could never say that about influenza, because of its transmissibility and infectiousness.” Case in point: In 2009, a newly discovered flu virus spread to 42 countries within 28 days, he said.

Scientific journals should recognize that not publishing all the details of advancing H5N1 research is strongly in the public interest. This information is too risky to be splashed all over the Internet.

Chicago Tribune