The Biological Weapons Convention and the recipe for avian superflu

Jan 26 2012
VERTIC Blog >> National Implementation Measures

Yasemin Balci, London

Scientists in the Netherlands and the United States may have changed avian flu into a superflu virus. With a human mortality rate of 60%, avian flu was already a highly dangerous disease. But the new version is also highly contagious, potentially spreading from human to human as easily as the seasonal flu. Although the scientists were eager to publish their results, security experts doubted whether the findings should be disclosed, stating that publication of the study could serve as a recipe for biological weapons. What does the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) say on the silencing or sharing of scientific developments?

Fretting over the findings
The scientists in question, Ron Fouchier from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, United States, came to the same results independently. Mr. Fouchier infected ferrets, which are known to react to influenza in the same way as humans, with a genetically mutated form of avian flu. When these ferrets became ill, he used samples of the reproduced virus to infect healthy ferrets. This process was repeated ten times until the virus itself was able to transmit between ferrets in adjacent cages through the air. In theory, this virus could therefore spread from human to human through the air without losing its virulence. ‘It is probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make’, says Mr. Fouchier.

The dual-use nature of this research has stirred a heated debate. Scientists argue that this research will save lives. Since avian superflu can evolve in nature over time, it would teach them which mutations to look out for and help them to develop vaccines. As scientists, they need to publish and review their results in order to reach these goals. However, biosecurity experts point out that for those with the wrong intent, the publication of this research is a recipe for killing people, not saving them. While only a good virologist could make the precursor virus used by Mr. Fouchier, it would take just five adaptations in two genes to do so.

Faced with this dilemma, the editors-in-chief of the journals Science and Nature, to which Mr. Fouchier and Mr. Kawaoka had submitted their articles respectively, requested the opinion of the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB). Last month the NSABB, a US federal committee which advises on publication of dual-use research, argued that the findings should be published, but in a redacted fashion omitting both the details and methodology. The editors and scientists begrudgingly agreed to follow this advice, but on the condition that interested scientists would have access to the full research via other channels. Due to the intense public and media attention their research has received since then, however, the scientists have voluntarily suspended their work for 60 days in order to allow time for an informed public debate.

Silence partly, share responsibly
The decision to withhold certain aspects of scientific development from publication while sharing it with a selected group is strongly supported by the BWC. The decision is a compromise between preventing the development of biological weapons and sharing research on new scientific developments. In Articles I and X and under the Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs), the Convention’s transparency mechanism, the BWC aims to strike the same balance by prohibiting biological weapons entirely while supporting the sharing of biological research.

Article I of the BWC requires states parties to ‘never in any circumstances […] develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain’ biological weapons. Biological weapons are here defined as microbial or other biological agents and toxins, whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.

This definition is known as the general purpose criterion - biological agents and toxins are weapons unless there is a peaceful justification for their type or quantity. These two studies on avian superflu meet these criteria as their objective is to better understand the virus and pave the way for developing vaccines. While this research is justified under the Convention, replicating or using its results for harmful purposes is not. Its publication is therefore legitimate, but it should take its possible negative consequences into account.

Blocking publication of this research would not only have meant curbing academic freedom to publish, but also restricting this information to research institutes in the Netherlands and the United States. States cannot force the academic and private sectors to share information. However under Article X of the BWC, states undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the use of biological agents and toxins for peaceful purposes. Similarly, Form C of the CBMs encourages publication of biological research. However, it accepts there may be restrictions and therefore asks states parties to report on their policy regarding publication.

While not able to publish their results in full the scientists may be able to share them, as is promoted under the BWC, with Asian countries where avian flu has occurred or is likely to occur. It is through sharing that the researchers in the Netherlands and the United States received the avian flu samples in the first place. The recipient countries will have to demonstrate that this new virus will be used responsibly, including through strong national legislation, which requires the necessary safety and security measures for laboratories to prevent accidents or intentional releases. The World Health Organization has now called for an international meeting to discuss how and under which conditions this research should be shared.

At the moment, the research has not been disclosed, and has even stopped. However, the decision to publish it in redacted form has only put greater emphasis on finding other avenues to share the results. This may still not prevent people with the wrong intent from learning more about avian superflu, but it will no longer be gleaned by reading a recipe in an academic journal.
 

Last changed: Jan 26 2012 at 10:56 PM

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