Comprehensive coverage

Reflections - scientific research and the war on terrorism / Bracha Reger

The fear that scientific research will be exploited for terrorist use recently made headlines with the development of a flu virus that could be fatal to humans

Credit: (Wikipedia): Cynthia Goldschmidt, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), courtesy of Cynthia Goldschmidt, Jacqueline Katz and Sharif R. Zaki.
Credit: (Wikipedia): Cynthia Goldschmidt, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), courtesy of Cynthia Goldschmidt, Jacqueline Katz and Sharif R. Zaki.

Has the existing policy stood the test of reality?

The fear that scientific research will be exploited for terrorist use recently made headlines with the development of an influenza virus that could be fatal to humans.

In 2008 Israel enacted a law to "regulate research on biological pathogens". The law states by definition that pathogens are bacteria, viruses, fungi and proteins that can cause diseases in humans and they are included in the list attached to the text of the law. The law also refers to the possibility that the pathogens will be used not only for scientific research but also for causing intentional damage. The Israeli law and laws in other countries are the result of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 and the delivery of the envelopes that contained anthrax bacteria that year. The attacks highlighted the lack of mechanisms to prevent and handle incidents of this type in the US and around the world.

As a result, one of the bodies established in the USA in 2005 is the American Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). The purpose of the committee is to inform the US government regarding the identification and treatment of cases in which there is a suspicion and possibility of exploiting pathogens or legitimate research results for the purposes of biological terrorism. However, since no special events have occurred since its establishment, its activity was limited and even suspected of being canceled.

And suddenly, from an unexpected direction, the need to awaken this body from its slumber arose. And this time the cause was not an anonymous sender of anthrax envelopes, but researchers from institutions whose research was even funded by the American Institutes of Health (NIH), which belong to the US Department of Health, i.e. the US government. In the fall of 2011, NSABB received articles for review from the systems of the journals Science and Nature - the two leading journals in scientific literature. The research teams that sent the articles for publication were headed by Ron Fouchier from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and Yoshiro Kooka from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The articles report success in changing the infectivity and spread of the avian influenza A virus of the H5N1 strain. The wild strain of this virus, which exists in nature, passes directly from bird to bird and rarely infects humans. In contrast, the mutant laboratory strain developed by the researchers passes directly between ferrets, which serve as an accepted model for influenza in humans. Because of this, the hypothesis is that this strain can spread directly in humans. The two researchers developed the virulent influenza strains using different methods: Fuschia grew the virus in ferrets until he obtained a virus that could be transmitted directly through the air, while Kuoka created a mutant virus by deliberately changing a gene of the H5N1 virus.

The results of these studies immediately lit a red light among NSABB members, fearing that the virus would escape from the laboratory or that the information reported in the articles would allow the virus to be used for bioterrorism purposes. The members of the committee sat on the bench for about five and a half weeks, until they unanimously decided to ask the newspapers to publish only a summary of the articles with the conclusions and reveal the working methods only to authorized people. It was the first time NSABB had issued such a decision, and it immediately sparked global outrage and controversy.

Despite their decision, the members of the committee felt that they should start an international discussion on the issue. Indeed, at a conference held in Geneva, the World Health Organization (WHO) allowed the researchers to present their findings to the world's leading influenza researchers, who believed that the results should be published in full because they are important for understanding the biology of the virus as well as for the development of a universal vaccine. It is worth adding that the difference between a mild virus and a violent virus is an important and central issue in influenza research (see: The Hunt for the Deadly Influenza Virus, Scientific American Israel, April 2005).

The scientific and public pressure resulted in the members of the NSABB - changing their minds and unanimously allowing Kooka's article to be published, but 6 members of the committee conditioned the publication of Foscia's article with some changes.

Influenza studies have become the touchstone of American policy principles. All participants in the WHO debate expect the committee to continue updating the policy in place even though there will most likely be cases of conflict of interest. The most notable change in the committee's policy is the decision to review the studies before funding them. It also recommends tightening the monitoring of research development, giving more responsibility to the local committees and the scientific community, adding restrictive categories to the original list of disease-causing agents, strengthening international cooperation and increasing public involvement.

About a year and a half ago I discussed the theoretical possibility that scientific research would be used for terrorist purposes [see Scientific American Israel, January issue, 2010]. Today, when the fear of developing such a biological weapon has become tangible, it is worth going back and looking at the Israeli law as well. In fact, although the Israeli law provides an answer to almost all the proposed changes of the American policy, it is the duty of those dealing with the issue, the National Council and the Ministry of Health, to allow the implementation of the law and ensure its enforcement. The cooperation with the academic institutions, with the hospitals, with the scientists and with the public is necessary.


on the notebook

Bracha Reger is Professor Emeritus of Microbiology and Immunology at the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben Gurion University, President of Ort Israel and Chairman of Ort Israel's Academic Council. Served as the chief scientist of the Ministry of Health and was a member of the Council for Higher Education.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Facebook

3 תגובות

  1. That's why it's so important for humanity to spread outside of Earth. We have simply become too crowded and too armed/technological/dangerous. You have to spread the eggs in other baskets, because someday this basket will fall.

  2. Any scientific research, or in general anything new that pops up in the air, will be used by humans for better or for worse, it is actually (unfortunately) our nature, to use what we have to conquer more and to enjoy the word "power".
    I just hope that one day (which most likely will never happen) - most people in the world (especially the leaders) will understand that our real war is against what is out there, in space and its infinite dangers, and not against each other.

Leave a Reply

Email will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismat to prevent spam messages. Click here to learn how your response data is processed.