Why Publishing A Bird Flu-Human Transmission Guide Was An Incredibly Dumb Idea

Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier has not only figured out how to make the H5N1 (bird flu) virus more contagious in humans, but he has also published the means of doing so. Fouchier and his team at Erasmus Medical Center have been researching the H5N1 virus for several years, but not without hitting several legal roadblocks along the way — and, maybe, for good reason.

In January 2012, Fouchier announced a two-month moratorium on studies that make H5N1 more transmittable between mammals. The time would be spent debating the idea that studies like these could potentially aid and encourage bioterrorists. When Fouchier was asked in an interview with Science what he thought of the moratorium, he said, "It's a pity that it has to come to this. I would have preferred if this hadn't caused so much controversy."

When asked about the risk of his studies helping bioterrorists, Fouchier reasoned, "Bioterrorists can't make this virus, it's too complex, you need a lot of expertise." Now, it appears, Fouchier is providing that expertise.

After another legal battle in 2013, in which Fouchier was forced to obtain an export license in order to publish the recipe in question, it looks like the Dutch scientist has finally succeeded in releasing the research that shows how to make the bird flu more contagious. The research, published in the journal Cell, reveals that only five mutations are needed in order to make the virus spread through the air between ferrets, which they used as proxies to humans.

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In other words, only five mutations stand between a noncontagious disease that has claimed under 400 lives to date and a full-on pandemic that could claim millions. Fouchier's rationale is that knowing what could cause a pandemic is essential in preventing one. "If we increase our understanding of how influenza viruses become airborne between mammals, we may be able to identify at some point which viruses [out of many that are circulating in nature], we need to keep an eye on because of public health risks," Fouchier says.

Which is all fine and swell, but a little regulation goes a long way. I'm not one for censorship, but highly sensitive information like this that could prove a substantial amount of risk should be guarded.

Anybody can go to the Cell website and purchase the entire research paper for $31.50 (I am not linking to it on purpose). Why not just keep the findings among the virology circles, where it would be the most useful? While the odds of a terrorist using this information to weaponize the virus are small, the odds of a writer like me using it to identify the virus and prevent a pandemic are zero, zilch, absolutely nonexistent. So — why release the findings to the public when it's not going to do us any good anyway?

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Here's a hypothetical compromise: Fouchier releases a comprehensive guide, in layman's terms, to spotting the H5N1 virus outside of the lab (something like "Bird Flu Watching For Dummies"). And if he's going to show us how to make it contagious, then he needs to also show us how to stop the spreading (I'm guessing it takes more than a few packets of Emergen-C). Or better yet, just keep all of that to yourself and not cause any more panic than you already have.

The world just doesn't feel right when you can learn how to make your own flu, but the recipe for Coca-Cola is still guarded like Fort Knox.