We can worry less that a newly created bird flu virus might kill tens or hundreds of millions of people if it escaped from the laboratory. But there is still some residual danger. And we remain appalled at the slipshod way in which this research was authorized despite its potential dangers to public health and national security.
The tale is a complicated one, but worth understanding since this is not the last time that this country and the world will face serious questions about scientific research and biosecurity. And government officials must ensure that, going forward, the process of approving such experiments works a lot more rationally.
The most worrying experiments were carried out by Dutch scientists and financed by this country’s National Institutes of Health. The researchers started with the bird flu virus, which seldom infects humans but is highly lethal when it does. With five mutations they made it transmissible through the air among ferrets and possibly humans.
Based on statements by the lead scientist that the virus retained its lethality, we urged in January that it be destroyed or studied only in a few high-containment laboratories, and that nothing be published about the experiments or, at a minimum, that details that might help a terrorist be redacted. In March, after the lead scientist, in a turnabout, said his new virus did not actually spread all that easily and was not lethal to ferrets when it did so, we called for clarification by an independent arbiter, like the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. That is the group of nongovernmental experts that originally voted 22 to 0 to recommend that the paper be published only after details on specific mutations and how they were made were redacted.
Now that board has changed its mind. In late March, after reviewing a revised version of the paper and grilling the Dutch scientist, it voted 12 to 6 to recommend publication with none of the details excised.