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Reviving the Virus

Reviving the Virus


We recommend you visit the interactive version, where you can vote on whether publishing the genome and recreating the virus were justified. The text to the right is provided for printing purposes.

The 1918 flu virus killed up to 50 million people worldwide. Recently, two controversial events took place concerning this frightening germ, also known as Spanish flu. First, researchers sequenced its genome and published the data on a public database. Then, other researchers used the genome to bring the long-vanished virus back to life, later publishing how they did it in the journal Science.

Was all this justified? Proponents say the benefits of what we'll learn from the resurrected 1918 virus about pandemic flus—which strike every few decades and may soon again—far outweigh the risk that rogue nations or individuals could use the genome or the virus itself for nefarious purposes. Naysayers think they decidedly do not. We'll lead you through the arguments for and against. (See interactive version to vote on what you think in our poll.)—Peter Tyson

See sources of quotes that appear in this feature.

Were publishing the genome and recreating the virus justified?

Below, see arguments for and against, paired by topic.

"Yes" Argument #1

Researchers will use the genome and revived virus to learn how to protect us from future flu pandemics.

The 1918-19 flu virus was perhaps the deadliest in history. Known to scientists as H1N1, that flu was an avian flu—one that originated in birds and mutated to be transmissible human to human. Scientists fear it's only a matter of time before the current bird flu, H5N1, will do the same. Another unchecked pandemic could kill tens to hundreds of millions of people. Experts argue that we need to learn as much as we can from its close relative, the 1918 flu, in order to develop antiviral drugs, vaccines, and strategies to ward off any new pandemic.

"We feel that the certain benefits to be obtained by a robust and responsible research agenda aimed at developing the means to detect, prevent and treat these threats far outweigh any theoretical risks associated with such research."

—Anthony Fauci, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and Julie Gerberding, Director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"Understanding as much as possible about the virus that caused the devastating 1918-1919 influenza pandemic is an urgent imperative as we pursue efforts to prepare for—and possibly thwart—the next flu pandemic."

—Elias Zerhouni, Director, U.S. National Institutes of Health

"No" Argument #1

Terrorists could use the genome or the recreated virus in attacks.

Anyone can access GenBank, a gene-sequence database set up to enable the free and open exchange of genome data. With access to the proper know-how, facilities, and funding, rogue states or persons could use the 1918 flu's genetic recipe to recreate the virus—or they could steal existing stocks of the virus—and release it. Critics argue that it was a big mistake both to publish this recipe and to revivify this long-dead virus.

"A decade ago, the manipulation of deadly viruses could be restricted to a high-security vault... Today, however, the super-secret stores of deadly viruses have been reduced to a set of instructions, which might at some point become a cookbook for terrorists and other malcontents or amateurs."

—Arthur Caplan, Director, University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, and Glenn McGee, Director, Alden March Bioethics Institute

"[T]he tangible societal benefits of sequencing and reconstructing the 1918 pandemic influenza virus remain poorly defined. Considering the high risk of abuse, the availability of alternative research avenues, and the limited added value to public health, this particular research project seems to be one of the few cases in which the risks outweigh the benefits and that therefore should not have proceeded...."

—Jan van Aken, former member of the Hamburg Center for Biological Arms Control, Hamburg, Germany

"Yes" Argument #2

The decisions to publish the genome and recreate the virus were fully vetted with the proper authorities.

The government's top scientific institutions gave the green light to publish the genome. These included the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, established to advise governmental agencies and the scientific community on policies specifically concerned with public disclosure of scientific information. Before recreating the virus, the Centers for Disease Control team gained similar clearances.

"The authors [of the Science article about the recreated 1918 virus] were urged to consult with CDC director Julie Gerberding and with Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Amy Patterson, director of the Office of Biotechnology Activities ... at the National Institutes of Health, was also informed. All three felt that the public health benefits of the study far outweighed any biosecurity risks."

—Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-chief, Science

"People may be reassured that the system is working, because agencies representing the public, the scientific community, and the publishing journals were involved in the decision."

—Philip Sharp, molecular biologist and Nobel laureate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"No" Argument #2

The decisions to publish the genome and recreate the virus were not properly vetted with the general public.

While leading scientific bodies approved the research and the publishing of it, some experts feel the general public was not given sufficient chance to consider and approve these activities.

"The public has a right to help determine if, and under what conditions, risky research proceeds. Biosafety review must be a matter of law, and public access provisions of federal research rules must be strengthened. Otherwise, risky experiments such as [the recreation of the 1918 virus] will take place with little or no transparency, and that will decrease international security and create environmental and health risks."

—Edward Hammond, Director, Sunshine Project, a bioweapons watchdog

"There isn't much input from the public [about experiments such as recreating the 1918 flu virus]. I think there should be."

—Arthur Caplan, Director, University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics

"Yes" Argument #3

Terrorists would have a hard time recreating the virus from the genome.

Reconstructing the 1918 virus—which proponents say was necessary because its genome alone cannot reveal why the germ was so virulent or how it made the leap to become transmissible human to human—required vast experience and proper facilities. Terrorists would have a hard time acquiring such expertise, and they would need specially designed laboratories to contain the virus and protect workers from exposure.

"These are not easy viruses to reconstruct. You're not going to do this in a cave in Afghanistan."

—Diane Griffin, Chair, Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University

"It is highly unlikely, and essentially impossible, that a terrorist or terrorist organization would have the facilities and expertise to completely recreate an influenza virus based solely on its genome."

—William Guilford, professor of biomedical engineering, University of Virginia

"No" Argument #3

Terrorists could easily reconstruct the virus from the genome.

The CDC researchers not only recreated the virus but published details on how it was done. With sufficient funding, rogue nations or terrorists could gain access to the expertise and facilities needed to do the same. Moreover, anyone can order DNA made to a certain sequence from biosupply companies (though some companies have begun to screen orders for pathogenic sequences).

"Give me $100,000 and two months, and I can recreate [the Spanish flu] right here in my lab. You wouldn't be able to tell it from the real thing that was around a hundred years ago."

—Earl Brown, flu researcher, University of Ottawa, Canada

"Regeneration is possible in any well-equipped molecular biology laboratory. Indeed, the Canadians wishing to work with this flu find it less complicated to make it themselves by following the published procedure than to get permission to import it from the United States."

—Jens Jensenius, Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, University of Aarhus, Denmark

"Yes" Argument #4

The chances that the government's recreated virus could escape are close to nil.

The CDC and other laboratories that have been cleared to work with the virus have extremely stringent controls and procedures to ensure that the 1918 flu remains safely within the facility. These include, among others, extensive background checks on researchers, retina and fingerprint scans for entry, and upper-body suits and respirators while working with the virus.

"The public needs confidence that the 1918 virus will not escape from research labs. All of the described experiments were done in a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory, a high-containment environment recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health on an interim basis, whose use should become a permanent requirement for such experiments."

—Philip Sharp, molecular biologist and Nobel laureate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"CDC evaluated the specific studies to be conducted as well as the highly experienced scientific team conducting the research and concluded that this work could proceed under BSL-3 containment with enhancements."

—U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"No" Argument #4

The recreated virus could escape into the environment.

Lethal viruses have escaped before from ostensibly secure facilities. In 2003, a SARS virus escaped accidentally from a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory in Singapore, and in 2004, two additional escapes occurred from similar labs in Beijing. And lethal viruses can be deliberately removed, as with the anthrax used in the 2001 letter attacks. Who's to say the 1918 flu couldn't get out, either by intentional or unintentional means, particularly since not just the CDC but other laboratories can work with it?

"This would be extremely dangerous should it escape, and there is a long history of things escaping. What advantage is so much greater than that risk?"

—Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, molecular biologist and member of the Federation of American Scientists' Working Group on Biological Weapons

"Biosecurity experts ... believe that the risk that the re-created strain might escape is so high, it is almost a certainty. ... Now that the virus has been re-created ... it may be prudent to use this same information to create a vaccine, given that containment can never be certain."

—Jens Jensenius, Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, University of Aarhus, Denmark

"Yes" Argument #5

Even if the virus got out, it would not be nearly as deadly as in 1918.

Experts say most people alive today should have at least partial immunity to the 1918 flu virus. We're descendants of those who survived the pandemic, and subsequent human flus are derived in part from the 1918 flu, so our immune systems have some experience with it. Also, two types of antiviral drugs are effective against flu viruses similar to the 1918 variety, and certain flu vaccines have protected mice against the Spanish flu.

"Since contemporary H1N1 viruses circulate widely and the current annual influenza vaccines contain an H1N1 component, a 1918-like H1N1 virus would not fit the current criteria for a new pandemic strain."

—U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"Because a pandemic infection is dependent on many unknown properties, there is no certainty that the reconstructed 1918 virus is capable of causing a pandemic."

—Philip Sharp, molecular biologist and Nobel laureate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"No" Argument #5

If the virus got out, it could kill millions of people around the world.

The 1918 flu killed millions of people before mysteriously vanishing in the spring of 1919. Oddly, unlike more recent flu outbreaks that have struck the very young, the old, and the weak, the 1918 flu targeted young people in the prime of health. No one knows how deadly the Spanish flu would be if it got out. Considering how lethal it was in 1918-19, can we afford to take the chance that it could escape?

"I believe that this was research that should not have been performed. If this virus was to be accidentally or intentionally released, it is virtually certain that there would be greater lethality than from seasonal influenza, and quite possible that the threat of pandemic that is in the news daily would become a reality."

—Richard Ebright, Rutgers University bacteriologist and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator

"[R]elease of the virus would be far worse than an atomic bomb. Analyses have shown that the detonation of an atomic bomb in an American city could kill as many as one million people. Release of a highly communicable and deadly biological virus could kill tens of millions, with some estimates in the hundreds of millions."

—Ray Kurzweil, inventor, and Bill Joy, founder, Sun Microsystems

"Yes" Argument #6

Publishing the genome and how the recreation was done was responsible science.

The scientific community and U.S. government committees designed to oversee them generally agree that publishing and sharing data lies at the heart of scientific inquiry, and that hundreds or thousands of researchers working on a problem is far superior to one or several small groups with exclusive access to sensitive information working on it. This was shown dramatically with SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which scientists nipped in the bud in 2004.

"The availability of the [SARS] sequence data ... allowed research scientists throughout the world to begin immediately to analyze viral structure, function, and the molecular basis of how it might cause illness. ... The sequence data were also crucial to global efforts to develop candidate vaccines, antiviral drugs, and especially accurate, sensitive diagnostic tests. ... In most cases, vaccine development relied entirely on knowledge of the viral sequence."

—U.S. National Research Council

"Moving forward with research conducted by the world's top scientists and openly disseminating their research results remain our best defense against H5N1 avian influenza virus and other dangerous pathogens...."

—Anthony Fauci, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and Julie Gerberding, Director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"No" Argument #6

Publishing the genome and details about how the recreation was done was an irresponsible thing to do.

Some experts feel that publishing the genome sequence of the Spanish flu and details about how to create it was reckless.

"This [publishing the genome on GenBank] is extremely foolish. The genome is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. ... We urgently need international agreements by scientific organizations to limit such publications and an international dialogue on the best approach to preventing recipes for weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands."

—Ray Kurzweil, inventor, and Bill Joy, founder, Sun Microsystems

"The U.S. government has done a great misdeed by endorsing and encouraging the deliberate creation of extremely dangerous new viruses. The 1918 experiments will be replicated and adapted, and the ability to perform them will proliferate, meaning that the possibility of man-made disaster, either accidental or deliberate, has risen for the entire world."

—Edward Hammond, Director, Sunshine Project, a bioweapons watchdog

Based on what you now know, were publishing the genome and recreating the virus justified? See how others voted, or go through our interactive version and vote yourself.

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