Is Bird Flu Research a Security Risk?

A story that has had a little airtime on the news over the last 24 hours or so concerns requests by US officials that details of research into a bird flu variant be held back from publication on the grounds that it might be of use to terrorists:

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that the “general conclusions” be published but that final manuscripts not include details that “could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm”.

The BBC’s health news blog reports that

Professor John Oxford from Barts and the London School of Medicine [says], “They should definitely publish. The biggest risk with bird flu is from the virus itself. We should forget about bio terrorism and concentrate on Mother Nature.”  [He and Prof Wendy Barclay from Imperial College London] agree that the influenza virus would make a pretty poor bioterrorist weapon, unless your aim was to spread the infection across the world. Influenza has no respect for borders, so introducing a virus in one country would inevitably spread it globally.

But Michael Parker, Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Ethox Centre at the University of Oxford, disagrees.  “The position that everything should be published is not tenable. There must be some scientific information which contains an immediate threat to public safety if it fell into the wrong hands.”

Parker’s worries reflect those articulated by Tom Douglas and Julian Savulescu in the JME a little while ago; they argued that synthetic biology raises significant new ethical problems, not least because of the potential for “dual use”.

I have to admit that I have yet to be convinced by the biosecurity worries.  The main reason for this is that I think it’s very easy to get overexcited about terrorists and to present them as caricature bad guys, possibly twiddling moustaches and saying, “Bwahahaha!” a lot.  They aren’t.  They are, on the whole, rational actors with a certain set of aims – and, as such, they have an interest in realising those aims in the most efficient way possible: mainly through fear, but with a willingness to back up the threat with action on occasion.

So the question is this: would the use of a modified organism represent an efficient way of achieving political ends?  I don’t think it would, and so not something that a rational actor would consider as part of his arsenal.  This is for reasons that I’ve outlined elsewhere, in relation to synthetic biology – but I think that the gist of the point translates well enough:

[T]hough gene-hacking is becoming cheaper and easier, it is still fairly expensive, and still fairly difficult.  Given that other weapons such as explosive devices are cheaper and easier to make, more reliable, and have a more obvious impact (it is not for nothing that the car-bomb has been called the “poor man’s air force”) any serious and rational terrorist organization would probably be better off using them.  Hence it is not obvious that a rational terrorist would, even if he could, adopt synbio into his arsenal.  That leaves the irrational terrorists unaccounted for; but, having said that, de irrationalibus non est disputandum.

Mucking about with an extant virus will be easier than (re)constructing one ex nihilo, but it still requires significant know-how and equipment – and if you’ve that know-how and equipment, Sarin would be a much more tried-and-true way to cause terror.  And, besides, if you let off a bomb or some nerve gas, you’ve got the effect right there: Here we are, here’re our demands, BANG!, We really mean it.  With something like flu… well, it could be days before anyone even notices what you’ve done, if they notice at all; and then you have the task of persuading the public that the strain of illness really was yours.  We already have the phenomenon where shadowy groups claim responsibility for other people’s bombs; part and parcel of terrorism is that various nutters will appear to claim that they did it.  Translate that to bioweaponry, and the situation becomes ludicrous: Here we are, here’re our demands, Atishoo!, We really mean it… No, honest, it was us, stop laughing, come back.

Rational terrorists have plenty of reasons to try to make us believe that they’d use a biological agent; but if they can do that, it’s not because of anything published in Nature or Science.  And I don’t think there’d be much reason to believe them anyway, or so their fear tactic falls a little flat.  Furthermore, it’s the belief that matters, not the reality behind it.  Perversely, the belief from which the fear stems is preserved by governmental requests that publication be modified: that promotes the idea that there are groups out there of whom we should be scared, and so does at least some of their work for them.

It’s not at all clear that there’s much of a reason not to publish.

UPDATE: Art Caplan contributes to CNN’s coverage of the story here; and Christian Munthe and Stellan Welin’s paper on the subject is available here.

  • Karki

    There are groups of people who think that the number of people alive today, and the projected number of people for fifty and a hundred years or more from now, is the biggest problem facing the world. There are environmentalists (too many people of all sorts), racists (think a bio-engineered virus could skip the blondes and redheads? some would try, as there are too many people of certain sorts), nihilists (the End Times is quite common for all societies,) corporatists and imperialists (wouldn't it be nice if there weren't any people living around those valuable resources?) and just plain haters out there who would seriously consider the opportunity to take out a percentage (large or small) of the planet. Then there's plenty of oil, fresh water, energy, beach-front property, and the rest. Some see horrible plagues, while others see opportunity.

    And if you think terrorists are going to think rationally, or what they want most is attention, then you don't fully understand terrorists or terrorism. The goals of terrorists are what matter to them, not the methods. And there are many who have the goal of killing off lots and lots of people.

  • BBB

    It seems you have not actually read the articles you're talking about. Mortality rates in these dangerous flus are north of 50% and the bugs can be spread through the air. It's far, far worse than the “Atishoo!” you refer to. These are real risks that keep public health experts awake at night. You do, however, fail to mention the main reason such bioweapons are not suitable for terrorism – they can't be controlled once out of the bottle, given the amount of global travel, the lack of effective vaccines, and the difficulty of vaccinating entire populations even if vaccines for the new bugs were available.

  • I think that BBB's comment speaks to many of your worries here – if you really want to eliminate some sections of humanity but preserve others, a weaponised virus is a deeply unreliable way to do it.

    And I see no reason to suppose that terrorists are always non-rational: there've been plenty of rational terrorists.  They have a goal, and they're willing to take steps to realise it that maybe you or I wouldn't countenance; but terrorism is a political phenomenon, and, as such, answers to political rules.  For sure, there is the occasional one such as Aum Shinrikyo, which doesn't seem to fit this picture.  But once you're dealing with them, it appears that all bets are off anyway.

  • OK,yeah: you're right about the public health aspect.  There are certainly legitimate worries about what'd happen in the event of an accidental release.  But, having said that, there're people who work with bugs that're at least as nasty already; we have the protocols, and it's not obvious that there's any huge difference.

    In respect of deliberate release, you've identified a significant
    problem for state actors.  I'm not sure that exactly the same concerns apply to non-state actors such as terrorists, since they have slightly different strategic ends.