US Government Pressures Scientists to Censor Evidence of New H5N1 Strain

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So instead of alerting the scientific community so they can start work on a vaccine, the government wants to sweep this under the rug.

Every time we hear about a pandemic or an outbreak we hear the same voices saying how irresponsible the scientists are for daring to report on true findings that we don't understand and find scary. Well, seems the government agrees. How's this solution work for you?

Ok, seriously now, anyone with the knowledge and capability of replicating what these biologists have done is going to be able to gain access to the full research reports. This is a waste of time and manpower on the part of the US gov.

LobsterMobster wrote:

So instead of alerting the scientific community so they can start work on a vaccine, the government wants to sweep this under the rug.

That's not exactly true, Lobster. The naturally occurring H5N1 strain requires birds to be the disease vector. No birds, no disease. The mutated strains were created in the lab as part of the effort to develop a vaccine for H5N1. The only problem is that creating a mutated version of H5N1 that doesn't require birds is essentially the first step in weaponizing the disease.

The US government has had an uneasy relationship with bioweapons research since we officially swore off them in the early 70s. The problem is that to develop a vaccine for a nasty disease requires you to first develop that pathogen, which means there's a blurry line between research for good and a bioweapons program. It also means that there are some truly frightening things kept on ice at the level 4 biosafety facilities at Fort Detrick and Plum Island.

Farscry wrote:

Ok, seriously now, anyone with the knowledge and capability of replicating what these biologists have done is going to be able to gain access to the full research reports. This is a waste of time and manpower on the part of the US gov.

Yeah, anyone who could make use of it could still get it. Deliberately screwing with viruses towards a specific end is... nontrivial.

Also, "Oh noes *terrorism!" is getting really tiring.

Not to mention the fact that if there is an outbreak or an attack, you want as many people as possible to have detailed knowledge of the pathogen, as that increases the odds that you can defend against the disease. Thus, the only logical reason for wanting this information to remain secret would be if someone had developed the pathogen already, and didn't want people to know how to fight it because that would reduce its value as a bioweapon.

Aetius wrote:

Not to mention the fact that if there is an outbreak or an attack, you want as many people as possible to have detailed knowledge of the pathogen, as that increases the odds that you can defend against the disease. Thus, the only logical reason for wanting this information to remain secret would be if someone had developed the pathogen already, and didn't want people to know how to fight it because that would reduce its value as a bioweapon.

For some reason my mind read that post in Doc Brown's voice. I need to stop looking at your avatar.

93_confirmed wrote:

For some reason my mind read that post in Doc Brown's voice. I need to stop looking at your avatar. :-)

Great Scott! They found me! I don't know how, but they found me! Run for it!

LobsterMobster wrote:

So instead of alerting the scientific community so they can start work on a vaccine, the government wants to sweep this under the rug.

Aetius wrote:

Not to mention the fact that if there is an outbreak or an attack, you want as many people as possible to have detailed knowledge of the pathogen, as that increases the odds that you can defend against the disease. Thus, the only logical reason for wanting this information to remain secret would be if someone had developed the pathogen already, and didn't want people to know how to fight it because that would reduce its value as a bioweapon.

To be fair: they're not trying to stop the paper from being published or suppress the major findings, just make it so that the methods section of the paper are available on application only. All of the information you mentioned will be freely available, they just don't want the step-by-step instructions on how to actually make the virus floating around.

I can see both sides on this issue. On the one hand, my science background makes me reflexively oppose the censorship of research. On the other hand, the fact that my science background is specifically in microbiolology, immunology and genetics makes me uncomfortably aware of how easy it would be to engineer something really nasty if you knew what you were doing. Original findings are very time- and resource-intensive, but replicating what someone else had done would be much more straightforward. Get someone with a relevant phd and something like $500,000 and you'd be most of the way there.

Have I mentioned how much I love you guys? Even Ars Technica had a comments section full of people saying that the research needed to be destroyed or even the scientists imprisoned.

The most important tidbit I got out of this research, from here:

After 10 generations, the virus had become "airborne": Healthy ferrets became infected simply by being housed in a cage next to a sick one. The airborne strain had five mutations in two genes, each of which have already been found in nature, Fouchier says; just never all at once in the same strain.

Of course, I thought that was crazy easy, but I asked my Immunologist wife how many generations she thought it would take and she said "probably 10 to 20" so apparently this is par for the course. She also thinks the whole thing is dumb. Apparently this sort of virus manipulation is literally done every day, and a terrorist could kidnap pretty much any immunologist to have them do it for them. So that's comforting.

Actually, I think I saw this movie, and the scientist ended up curing every disease ever in a cave. Using a box of scraps.

And beef jerky. It's a critical component in bioresearch.

If you guys haven't, see Contagion. Great movie about how such a pandemic might actually be handled.

Yonder wrote:

She also thinks the whole thing is dumb. Apparently this sort of virus manipulation is literally done every day, and a terrorist could kidnap pretty much any immunologist to have them do it for them. So that's comforting.

I wouldn't worry too much: engineered viruses like that really aren't very good as bioterrorism weapons (I was actually assigned this as a presentation topic back in undergrad). Vaccines are much harder to make than viruses, and without a vaccine a virus that contagious would probably do more damage to the terrorist organisation than it would to their target. It's really only doomsday cults that might contemplate it, and realistically most of them aren't bright enough.

I reckon any sensible terrorist would probably be better off just going the Executive Orders route and tracking down some monkeys in Africa with a haemorrhagic fever. No specialised tech required, higher "terror" value, and less chance of things going wrong.

Sonicator wrote:

It's really only doomsday cults that might contemplate it, and realistically most of them aren't bright enough.

They've done more than contemplate it. Aum Shinrikyo attempted several biological attacks and several chemical attacks before their famous Sarin attack on the Tokyo subway. Most of these attacks were such abysmal failures that no one even knew they had occurred until after the Japanese police raided their facility and discovered their records. And that's despite having substantial funding, highly skilled scientists, plenty of time, and a fully equipped research facility.

Aetius wrote:
Sonicator wrote:

It's really only doomsday cults that might contemplate it, and realistically most of them aren't bright enough.

They've done more than contemplate it. Aum Shinrikyo attempted several biological attacks and several chemical attacks before their famous Sarin attack on the Tokyo subway. Most of these attacks were such abysmal failures that no one even knew they had occurred until after the Japanese police raided their facility and discovered their records. And that's despite having substantial funding, highly skilled scientists, plenty of time, and a fully equipped research facility.

Yeah, "contemplate" was the wrong choice of word resulting from a long day at work. "Consider it useful" probably would have been better.

I was under the impression that they were mostly working with stuff like VX and hydrogen cyanide - did they dabble in infectious agents too?

Sonicator wrote:

I was under the impression that they were mostly working with stuff like VX and hydrogen cyanide - did they dabble in infectious agents too?

Yep, botulism and anthrax.

The very concept of super germs or germ warfare scare the crap out of me. I guess I shouldn't be surprised though considering that we used to give native americans blankets that were laced with smallpox.

Bear wrote:

The very concept of super germs or germ warfare scare the crap out of me. I guess I shouldn't be surprised though considering that we used to give native americans blankets that were laced with smallpox.

It's not like we haven't been there before.

Why else would we have given blanket immunity to one of the most heinous war criminals in human history.

Aetius wrote:
Sonicator wrote:

I was under the impression that they were mostly working with stuff like VX and hydrogen cyanide - did they dabble in infectious agents too?

Yep, botulism and anthrax.

Interestingly enough, both of those have sufficiently poor person-to-person transmission that they behave more like particularly nasty poisons - they couldn't really start an outbreak.

Bear wrote:

The very concept of super germs or germ warfare scare the crap out of me. I guess I shouldn't be surprised though considering that we used to give native americans blankets that were laced with smallpox.

Goes back ever further than that - I forget who did it, but the bodies of plague victims were reportedly catapulted into cities during sieges.

While the idea of germ warfare is frightening, I think we're realistically looking at a much greater threat from bugs that are naturally evolving resistance to misused antibiotics than from something deliberately cobbled together. Or from ridiculous things like polio if the anti-vaccine movement gets much more momentum and we lose herd immunity.

Sonicator wrote:

While the idea of germ warfare is frightening, I think we're realistically looking at a much greater threat from bugs that are naturally evolving resistance to misused antibiotics than from something deliberately cobbled together. Or from ridiculous things like polio if the anti-vaccine movement gets much more momentum and we lose herd immunity.

I agree about resistance being an issue but its not likely to be a pandemic. Most resistance centers on resistant strains of bacteria diseases that aren't always that easily spread.

What bothers me about the "engineered" variants is that they're designed to be easily transmissible.

Regardless, this isn't an area we, or anyone should be playing in.

Bear wrote:

Regardless, this isn't an area we, or anyone should be playing in.

Why not? If researchers don't try to make the avian flue affect animals on purpose how are we supposed to know how likely it is to happen in nature, and what other traits may be correlated with those mutated genes?

You am play gods!

Bear wrote:
Sonicator wrote:

While the idea of germ warfare is frightening, I think we're realistically looking at a much greater threat from bugs that are naturally evolving resistance to misused antibiotics than from something deliberately cobbled together. Or from ridiculous things like polio if the anti-vaccine movement gets much more momentum and we lose herd immunity.

I agree about resistance being an issue but its not likely to be a pandemic. Most resistance centers on resistant strains of bacteria diseases that aren't always that easily spread.

What bothers me about the "engineered" variants is that they're designed to be easily transmissible.

Yeah, I just feel like the engineered viruses fall into the same category as things like nukes: incredibly scary if they were deployed, but also extraordinarily unlikely to actually be used. MRSA and its descendants may not cause an apocalyptic outbreak in the same way an engineered virus could, but it's almost certainly going to kill a lot more people over the next 20 years.

Yonder wrote:
Bear wrote:

Regardless, this isn't an area we, or anyone should be playing in.

Why not? If researchers don't try to make the avian flue affect animals on purpose how are we supposed to know how likely it is to happen in nature, and what other traits may be correlated with those mutated genes?

I was referring specifically to us playing in the arena engineered strains that have no purpose other than germ warfare.

Bear wrote:
Yonder wrote:
Bear wrote:

Regardless, this isn't an area we, or anyone should be playing in.

Why not? If researchers don't try to make the avian flue affect animals on purpose how are we supposed to know how likely it is to happen in nature, and what other traits may be correlated with those mutated genes?

I was referring specifically to us playing in the arena engineered strains that have no purpose other than germ warfare.

Aha, then yes! That is something we should stop fiddling with.