In October of 2005, the full-sequenced genome of the 1918 Influenza Virus was published by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The science involved in the research advances to sequence the genome was considered a tremendous undertaking. Even so, there was an outcry by in-the-knows individuals who felt that releasing the full details were a serious mistake.
In 2005, an op-ed article in the New York Times, authored by Bill Joy, the founder and former chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, and Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and author, claimed, “It would be easier to create and release this highly destructive virus from the [known] genetic data than it would be to build and detonate an atomic bomb.”[i] The piece lays out, in no uncertain terms, a stark and profound indictment of the decision to publish the specific details of the 1918 Influenza Virus’s genome sequencing.
Yesterday, the Washington Post ran an article entitled, “Recommendation to Censor Bird Flu Research Driven by Fears of Terrorism.” The article highlights the changing tide within the scientific community concerning the release of potentially harmful sensitive scientific information, specifically the methodological components of the research, deemed potentially harmful published in its purest form.
Moreover, members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) have officially recommended against releasing full details of recent research conducted by Netherlands-based Erasmus Medical Center and the University of Wisconsin at Madison on vaccine mutations of the H5N1 viruses. In the statement by the NSABB the Board concluded that, “with this [enhanced capability and technological know-how in microbial genomics] has come unprecedented potential for better control of infectious diseases and significant societal benefit. However, there is also a growing risk that the same science will be deliberately misused and that the consequences could be catastrophic.”[ii]
This specific controversy started back in December of 2011, when the NSABB and the US National Institutes of Health made a first of its kind request to leading scientific journals not to publish recent research in question on H5N1.
Is this stand-alone dissension between only scientist and ethicist? Or does this extend beyond the scientific community, consequential also to the public and US national security?
Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James R. Clapper, testified before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence relating the DNI’s viewpoint on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. During his testimony, Clapper indicated “that a mass attack by foreign terrorist groups involving a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons in the United States is unlikely in the next year.”[iii]
Further detailing the DNI’s viewpoints, however, Clapper said that, “lone actors abroad or in the United States including criminals and homegrown violent extremists inspired by terrorist leaders or literature advocating use of CBR materials are capable of conducting at least limited attacks in the next year.”[iv]
A critical question of paramount importance comes to the forefront, then. If the DNI sees the use of CBRN weapons as being a low but potential risk, are the concerns raised about the recent H5N1 being overblown? Is this the case of the “what-ifs” overshadowing the realities?
Perhaps, concerns should not be so quickly dismissed, as Director Clapper later asserts that though traditional ideologies of deterrence and diplomacy limit and mold the actions and acquisitions of taboo weaponry by nation-states, these ideologies are less impactful on the actions of individuals and non-state actors. Further, “the time when only a few states had access to the most dangerous technologies is past. Biological and chemical materials and technologies...move easily in our globalized economy, as do the personnel with scientific expertise to design and use them.”[v]
Consider the proliferation of actionable scientific data in Al-Qaeda’s 2010 edition of Inspire Magazine, which offered a “For Dummies” manual on “How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.”[vi] While building a weaponized version of H5N1 is not as simplistic as constructing a home-made bomb, concerns about the medium-term implications of releasing the H5N1 scientific data gives one serious pause.
The importance of scientific advancement and research collaboration should also be seen as a national priority, with significant impact on national security. Advances and breakthroughs will be fundamentally important to epidemiology, virology, and microbial genomics progress, ensuring enhanced vaccinations are developed to protect against health calamities of 1918 proportions. Nevertheless, there has to be a line between unfettered information exchange about sensitive and potentially dual-use research, and the consequences of its misuse.
But perhaps there is a middle ground. Is it possible to limit public dissemination of such sensitive research while creating a secure, verifiable forum in which researchers and scientists can exchange relevant data? It becomes a question of balancing the need for open, collaborative scientific research with keeping dual-use technology/research out of the hands of malefactors.
*Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Lint Center Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Lint Center for National Security Studies, Inc. or any employee thereof. The Lint Center for National Security Studies, Inc. is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Lint Center Bloggers.
About the Authors:
Tim Coleman received his BA from Georgetown, MBA from Barry University, and Master of Public and International Affairs, Security and Intelligence Studies from the University of Pittsburgh, and serves as the Center’s Director of Communications.
Brittany Minder received her BA in International Relations from Stanford University and she serves as the Lint Center’s Public & External Affairs Associate.
- Grady, Denise and Broad, William J., “Seeing Terror Risk, U.S. Asks Journals to Cut Flu Study Facts”, The New York Times, Retrieved on February 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/21/health/fearing-terrorism-us-asks-journals-to-censor-articles-on-virus.html?pagewanted=all
- Harmon, Katherine, “What Will the Next Influenza Pandemic Look Like?” Scientific America, September 19, 2011, Retrieved on February 1, 2012 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=next-influenza-pandemic
- Kurzweil, Ray and Joy, Bill “Recipe for Destruction”, The New York Times, October 17, 2005, Retrieved on February 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/17/opinion/17kurzweiljoy.html
- Council on Foreign Relations, “Backgrounder: al-Qaeda (a.k.a. al-Qaida, al-Qa'ida)”
- August 29, 2011, Retrieved on February 1, 2012 http://www.cfr.org/terrorist-organizations/al-qaeda-k-al-qaida-al-qaida/p9126
- National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, “Adaptations of Avian Flu Virus Are a Cause for Concern”, January 31, 2012, Retrieved on February 1, 2012, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2012/01/30/science.1217994.full.pdf
- Director of National Intelligence, “Unclassified Statement for the Record on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” Remarks as delivered by James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, January 31, 2012, Retrieved on February 1, 2012, http://www.dni.gov/testimonies/20120131_wwta_as_delivered_remarks.pdf
[i] Kurzweil, Ray and Joy, Bill “Recipe for Destruction”, The New York Times, October 17, 2005, Retrieved on February 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/17/opinion/17kurzweiljoy.html
[ii] National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, “Adaptations of Avian Flu Virus Are a Cause for Concern”, January 31, 2012, Retrieved on February 1, 2012, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2012/01/30/science.1217994.full.pdf
[iii] Director of National Intelligence, “Unclassified Statement for the Record on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” Remarks as delivered by James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, January 31, 2012, Retrieved on February 1, 2012, http://www.dni.gov/testimonies/20120131_wwta_as_delivered_remarks.pdf