What are your concerns about the research?
Ebright: The primary risks are accidental release through accidental infection of a lab worker who then infects others -- for which there are many precedents -- and deliberate release by a disturbed or disgruntled lab worker, for which the 2001 US anthrax mailings provide a precedent. Bioterrorism and biowarfare also are risks.
Zimmer: I am concerned about the ad hoc way in which scientists are figuring out how to do this research. The possibility that the Wisconsin and Dutch researchers would produce mammal-ready H5N1 flu was baked into their grant applications. Surely the debate about the potential danger should have been conducted back then, rather than now, when the scientists are ready to publish their results. If scientists have to worry that they won't be able to publish their work after years of research, fewer people will address the pressing issue of dangerous new viruses.
Is there a way to safely conduct this study, or studies with similar risks, and achieve the goals of the research? If yes, how? If no, does shutting down this type of research raise concerns about scientific freedom?
Ebright: Future work with lab-generated transmissible avian influenza viruses should be performed only at the highest biosafety level, only at the highest biosecurity standard, and only after approval by, and under the oversight of, a national or international review process that identifies risks and benefits, weighs risks and benefits, mitigates risks, and manages risks.
The same should be the case for all other research directed at increasing a potential pandemic pathogen's virulence, transmissibility, or ability to evade vaccines and treatments.
Racaniello: Shutting down H5N1 transmission research is an overreaction proposed by individuals who do not understand the science or the reasons for doing the experiments.
This work can be safely conducted under Biosafety level 3* containment. Scientists have been conducting dangerous experiments for years under these conditions, and there have been no disasters. On the contrary, the only two bioterror attacks in history originated in government laboratories.
The [National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity**] is selecting the wrong set of experiments with which to flex their regulatory muscles. There is little chance that the ferret-passaged H5N1 virus will infect and transmit among humans.
This is not the first time scientists have disagreed about conducting research in specific areas. Human genetic engineering is another example. Why has this debate been so intense?
Racaniello: Most virologists agree that the experiments should proceed and are not exceptionally dangerous. The exceptions are those who don't understand the science, and the bioterror community. These individuals have proliferated since 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. They are paid large sums of money to sit in offices and decree what scientists can or cannot do. They are not practicing scientists and they don't appear to understand the underlying science.
Entire academic departments and corporations have been funded by the U.S. government to ponder potential dangers and tell scientists what to do. We now have a bioterror-industrial complex that rivals the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned us about. It is a scam, and I hope one day the nature and extent of the wasted money will be revealed to the public.