The Science is on a Need-to-know Basis, and You Don't Need to Know
February 13, 2012 7:26 AM   Subscribe

The committee took the unprecedented step of recommending that some details of these biological studies [be] kept from the public, so that no one could use them as recipes for new bioweapons.

The authors of one controversial Burd Flu transmission study discuss the ethical controversy:
Biosecurity experts have argued that the methods we have used represent a recipe to create biological weapons and that information about the specific mutations that determine transmission of H5N1 virus could also be misused for this purpose. However, it is important to emphasize that we did not develop novel methods and that we only used information and methods that are available freely from the scientific literature. The logic in this work is sufficiently obvious that virologists could perform experiments similar to ours even if our method is not published.
The World Health Organization has called a meeting next week to discuss the disclosure of "dual-use" research. "Dual-use" research is research having a legitimate scientific purpose, but which can be misused for harmful purposes. In the USA, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a government body, advises on dual-use research and how it should be handled.

Per the NSABB's recommendations, two Burd Flu studies have been published with key information redacted, prompting this editorial from The Lancet Journal of Infectious Diseases:
[H]alting dissemination after the research has been completed, especially after partial details have been announced at meetings, is not only too late, but it goes against the principles of transparency and collaboration. Now so much is already known by so many, surely the best way to limit the potential harm is to make the full details and the full risks known to as many as possible so that work to address threats can begin.
Bonus Links: The World Health Organization's April 2011 update on H5N1 (Bird Flu).

Meeting the Challenge of Pandemic Influenza, the U.S. Veterans Affairs draft ethical guidance document for health care professionals facing a 1918-style influenza epidemic.

Previously on the Blue.
posted by gauche (30 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

What's next, shutting down /r/diy_biowar?
posted by chundo at 7:31 AM on February 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

chundo you joke but . . .
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:34 AM on February 13, 2012

Not knowing much about epidemiology, I'm curious how a modern outbreak would compare to the 1918 flu, which had a 10-20% mortality rate. Is there any scientific consensus as to how much better or worse things would be today?

On the plus side, we have instant communication and coordination between agencies, more medical knowledge, better drugs, etc. On the other hand, we have air travel. How would these balance out during a pandemic today?
posted by chundo at 7:46 AM on February 13, 2012

How would these balance out during a pandemic today?

Before we answer you, can we see your credentials? Also, your interest in the subject has piqued our interest, so we've put your name on a watch list. Thanks for helping us fight the War on Terror in your own little way; a few of our friendly 'customer service representatives' are on their way to 'assist' you.

- DHS, NSA, and the FBI
posted by chambers at 8:05 AM on February 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

You could take a look at SARS (that wikipedia article is pretty good) to get a sense of how things might progress. The truth is that large scale outbreaks of communicable disease can rapidly swamp modern health care facilities, which are not built for population-level responsiveness. There are many very crowded parts of the world where most people would not have access to the modern health care you are putting on one side of your equation.
posted by OmieWise at 8:07 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

A priori, I'd accept the authors position that their work employs sufficiently well understood techniques that anyone with the relevant training could look them up.

I'd imagine the biosecurity experts are simply searching for a purpose because we don't handle research that the military and intelligence communities view as "really dangerous" this way, ala cryptography or nuclear secrets.

You'd simply never witness NSA officials arguing with some foreign cryptographer that his publications put U.S. national security at risk. Instead, they'd simply ignore him and hope nobody noticed.

There is a huge gulf between DNA readers and organic printers, the man of twists and turns, don't expect to add an organics section any time soon, like they recently did for physibles. And any such technology would save vastly more lives than it endangered by making medical progress easier, increasing availability of medications, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:09 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

One of the things I'm interested in is this idea of "dual use" research. Isn't all (scientific, or engineering) research dual-use in some fashion? Doesn't the very fact that something has a practical application mean that it is some kind of a force multiplier?

We invented the hammer, which is also a sophisticated club for cavemen to beat one another to death. We invented the knife. We discovered fire. We built airplanes.

It's all just science, right?, until it hits the body of somebody you care about. What's the distinction being made between "dual-use" research and other kinds of research?
posted by gauche at 8:14 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'll worry when Madagascar closes her ports
posted by Renoroc at 8:18 AM on February 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

Um, don't we already have instructions for how to build a nuclear weapon on the web?

I'm not sure that this can be contained. Certainly, biology labs don't have quite the security infrastructure that our nuclear weapons system has. Or do they?
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:25 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, to some extent, biology labs have better security in that we scientists don't always label things very well. Want a plasmid from 5 years ago? I'm sorry, that grad student has left the lab, it's somewhere on the top three shelves of the -80. Good luck with that.
posted by maryr at 8:50 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I once heard an amusing argument that what should really be outlawed is Die Hard style action movies, G.I. Joe, etc. In essence, Osama bin Laden was simply implementing our own horror fantasies, as he'd learned them from his exposure to our culture, when organizing the 9/11 attacks. I suppose you might expand this to cover gun crime in the U.S. vs. E.U. somehow too.

In that vein, the biosecurity experts are the ones creating the risks here, not merely aiding bio-terrorists by highlighting dangerous techniques, but actually creating that reality by discussing the possibility and pushing it in Hollywood's mind.

There are only two really immediate existential threats to our species, asteroids and large scale nuclear war, basically nothing else even twigs the scary-o-metter relatively speaking. We should be asking if even the most dangerous bio-weapons ever developed present as much danger as the antibiotic resistant pathogens potentially created by the beef industry's usage of antibiotics.. or heck global warming.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:52 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

The early nuclear scientists once discussed hiding away their research, believing that man would use it for evil (Weapons) instead of good (Cheap power!). I think history has validated their concerns.
posted by GilloD at 9:12 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Um, don't we already have instructions for how to build a nuclear weapon on the web?

No. Otherwise everyone from Iran to Lichtenstein would already have one. The science involved with refining weapons grade nuclear material is very, very, very difficult to master and the applied science and subsequent engineering to master it is is very, very secret - and most of the nuclear powers out there could not have built a bomb without espionage or co-operation with an already existing nuclear power.

Government meddling with science and research... is usually a good thing. I'm dead serious. In the previous thread, there was a microbiologist who claimed it was a good thing for humanity that a slave-owner played mad-scientist on his slave women, as if gynecology could not have developed in any other, ethical and controlled way. Then there's this. But, hey, we got some good science out of that!

Bio researchers, especially in medicine, have an abysmal record of ethics violations in their experiements, and a casual disdain for negative consequences of their research that I continually find shocking.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:33 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

How would these balance out during a pandemic today?
posted by chundo at 7:46 AM on February 13 [+] [!]

The sad reality is that the amount of money we have devoted to stemming the effects of such a pandemic in our country is pathetically small compared to what we spend on military defense, or even what we spend on curing sniffles and limp penises. We certainly know what we need to do to be prepared, and, comparatively, we've spent much more money on it lately, due to the paranoia about intentional introduction of biological weapons. We would need a reordering of priorities in national defense spending to see real preparedness at any sufficient level. Hell, they've been starving the CDC, NIH, and PHS as of late for anything but DHS functions, so I wouldn't count on anything too effective.

On the other hand, we do have people thinking about what we would need in case of such an outbreak, and, if we still have any sanity left in our government, we could come up to speed pretty quickly.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:46 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

One word, just one word: ferrets.
posted by Slackermagee at 9:58 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

The scary bit is that this work isn't being done in secure labs.
posted by smackfu at 10:00 AM on February 13, 2012

I was reading another thread on this earlier, before the research was hushed.

The scariest thing is how trivially easy it was to create this strain. It wasn't the result of deep genetic manipulation, which I am under the impression was tried. It was a brute force technique that could be attempted by anyone with access to the precursor strains and a lab.

Another point I pulled from the discussion is that the US is expanding their main biolabs and pulling in as many partners as possible. Which is good if they get their security together, but I am worried about the consolidation of all such research under the auspices of our secret-happy government.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:01 AM on February 13, 2012

The big difference between biological weapons and nuclear weapons is that I know dozens of people who get a cold but go to work anyway, but I've yet to meet anyone who goes to work despite a bad case of U235.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:43 AM on February 13, 2012

Would anyone with access the papers like to take a look to see what was actually redacted?

My understanding (contrary to the excerpt) wasn't that the methodology was to be redacted (aka breed ferrets), but that they did an DNA analysis of the end strain, and that they were going to redact that, the specific changes in the DNA to cause ultra-virulence.

Which is a mechanism I fully support, as it's fairly common technique when it comes to computer security when applicable - sometimes the methodology and technique is publicly released, but the key itself is not - and when there's a some barrier to entry (such as needing to run a breeding experiment for 20 generations).

Then again, society is at a point where there is a financial incentive for fixing computer security flaws. I don't believe there's the same direct financial incentive to come up with a vaccine (I don't know anything about the funding model for vaccinations though).
posted by fragmede at 10:49 AM on February 13, 2012

There are two routes to building a basic atomic bomb, Mental Wimp, plutonium and uranium.

You could reasonably easily refine plutonium for bombs once you've some experience with civilian reactors, but plutonium bombs require a reasonably advanced understanding of the dynamics of the conventional explosion that compresses the plutonium core, meaning you need good mathematicians.

Conversely, you could reasonably easily build some uranium bomb types, but refining the uranium requires an incredible amount of delicate centrifuge work with uranium hexafluoride, meaning you need good chemists, quality manufacturing, and lots of electricity.

There are obviously nuclear secrets around the Teller–Ulam design needed for multi-megaton devices, but Slap*Happy is flat wrong about ability constraining basic nuclear proliferation. I'd suspect most advanced nations could build themselves plutonium bomb within a matter of months if really necessary, certainly Japan has an incredible amount of nuclear expertise.

As I understand it, you'd prefer that rough states with nuclear ambitions, like Iran and North Korea, pursue uranium bombs, because (a) they aren't suitable for mass production, (b) they don't impart much experience that's relevant for the Teller–Ulam design, and (c) they're ultimately more work than plutonium bombs.

There was an interesting article blaming the Bush administration for North Korea obtaining a Plutonium bomb, which goes : Clinton's administration cleverly decided to permit North Korea to pursue a uranium bomb on the grounds that it'd take them many decades to do so, given their extreme resource constraints. Bush's idiots freak out about North Korean bomb progress and make efforts to prevent Uranium refinement. All this achieved was convincing North Korea to refine their plutonium waste to try for a plutonium bomb. Voila, they build one quite quickly. It fizzles because their mathematics sucked. Try two succeeds several years later however.

posted by jeffburdges at 11:17 AM on February 13, 2012

In 1948, the USSR started a secret biowarfare program, on Vozrozhdeniya, a deserted island in the Aral Sea. It was abandoned in 1992. All sorts of nasty stuff like anthrax, smallpox, plague, brucellosis, and tularemia were left there, some buried, some just lying about in poorly sealed containers. Then the sea shrank, and it wasn't an island anymore. For a while it was left unguarded, and anyone could just walk in and take whatever. Soviet defectors spoke up, and the DRTA with the Uzbekistan government began cleanup in 2002.

So in addition to the concern of some wet-behind-the-ears antisocial people learning about dangerous things, we need to keep up with all the high-grade weaponized stuff out there that's not being monitored well.

I would like to take this moment to remind governments that in your set of 'what to do if the government collapses' planning, you put some time into developing a 'don't leave your incredibly dangerous shit just lying about afterwards' plan. Simply out of blatant self-interest, at the absolute least, because you (fingers crossed) and that shit will still be around if your government isn't anymore. Hundreds, if not thousands, of missile sites were handled just fine, which is admirable, but you can't lock down one bioweapon site, or at least give a spare key and a 'in case of..' letter to a friend? I'd expect this from some third-rate dictator with a hard-on for WMD and no concept of fallback planning, but not the military's special weapons department of the USSR.

Oh, joy: there were a total of 18 large facilities and 30,000 employees in the USSR's Biopreparat program.
posted by chambers at 11:26 AM on February 13, 2012

Slap*Happy is flat wrong about ability constraining basic nuclear proliferation

North Korea did it all on their own, just from plans they found on the internet, with no help at all from Russian or Chinese engineering, gathered by the RGB or other intelligence agencies? Do you really believe that?
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:14 PM on February 13, 2012

"In the previous thread, there was a microbiologist who claimed it was a good thing for humanity that a slave-owner played mad-scientist on his slave women, as if gynecology could not have developed in any other, ethical and controlled way."

Hey, I was that microbiologist! This is what I actually said, this is how you some how managed to read it, and this is how I responded. You asserted that unethical research could not possibly be useful, which was both false and a demonstration of fundamental ignorance. Acknowledging that the modern medical disciplines of gynecology and obstetrics, that all of us in these threads have benefited from, were built on and continue to benefit from horrific experiments performed on enslaved women is different from endorsing that fact.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:46 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

North Korea did it all on their own, just from plans they found on the internet, with no help at all from Russian or Chinese engineering, gathered by the RGB or other intelligence agencies? Do you really believe that?

Finding the information isn't the hard part. You can get all the information you need to build a reactor from plenty of non-government sources. The problem has always been fuel availability and the cost/complexity of machinery for large-scale nuclear development. Research censorship isn't what's limiting nuclear proliferation.

I share an office with a programmer who was a nuclear physicist in the USSR pre-collapse. Given enough money and a quantity of uranium, he could build a small reactor without too much difficulty. There's plenty of people like him in the world for countries with the resources to employ them - if you've got fuel and money, all you need is one expert to get the ball rolling.
posted by chundo at 1:51 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

If anyone in this thread wants one of the papers referenced but does not have access, just MeMail me with the citation and an email address I can send a PDF to, you know, for this academic discussion that we are currently having.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:51 PM on February 13, 2012

There are a variety of separate concerns with this paper that really need to be addressed separately.

To start with, there is the original concern with the methods contained within the paper itself being read by the wrong people and used for nefarious purposes.
    This is a very serious concern, and really the only one with any merit at all. The techniques involved are very simple and not that expensive. However, there is nothing in those papers that is genuinely dangerous that isn't in hundreds of papers scattered in the literature stretching back over the last hundred years. We have been designing pathogens, as well as amplifying both virulence and contagiousness, since the VERY beginning of microbiology.* It occurs to me that maybe I shouldn't cite references in a thread like this, but I've got a book on a shelf in my living room devoted to exactly these kinds of techniques. There is nothing new about this paper except for new ways of paying attention that yield incredibly valuable information. Really, as jeffburdges rightly points out, the most dangerous part about this paper is the attention that it is getting as a result of the censorship.
There have since been additional concerns raised about the level of containment of the lab itself.
    The committee that raised the original concern were not worried about this, why? It doesn't make sense to. The two labs involved in this kind of research are Bio Safety Level III (BSL III)facilities. Wildly excessive, as is appropriate, to the actual risk involved. BSL III labs are the kinds of places with spacesuits for workers, REALLY REALLY permanent markers for labeling because everything is doused in ethanol and bleach constantly, no chance to use the bathroom for eight hours at a time because getting out of the spacesuit properly takes hours, nothing but you leaves the lab except in an autoclave with one door on each side, and everything ends up costing 5 times as much on top of the normal science markup of an order of magnitude. All of this is in the context of a pathogen that would have a VERY VERY hard time doing anything to a human even in high doses. The researchers are not ferrets any more than agricultural workers LIVING WITH their pigs while culturing the same virus in the same conditions are pigs. If you are willing to actually pay attention to the REALLY FUCKING PRESENT threat of global pandemic, worry about this instead.
There have also been concerns raised about what nefarious evildoers might be able to do with the results of the experiments. Since the authors were able to characterize elements that made influenza more contagious and more virulent as it jumped species, the idea is perhaps an terrorist could reverse engineer the virus they ended up with.
    This is an intuitive concern, but it only makes sense with an incomplete knowledge of viral genetic systems. It is in fact pretty trivially easy to manipulate viral genomes by adding stuff in, taking stuff out, or switching stuff around, however, getting it to work better than before is another issue. Detached from the immense suffering that it causes, influenza is an absolutely fucking beautiful organism. We understand it well enough to be able to hobble it in specific ways and learn more from how it limps, but the subtle complexity of how it sprints through our immune systems is to much to hope to be able to improve upon the design. The authors of this paper actually demonstrated that by spending a lot of money failing to design a better virus before using the time tested old method that NSABB is freaking out about and simply watching what nature did so much better than they ever could.
"The scary bit is that this work isn't being done in secure labs."
    You know, those labs were a hell of a lot more secure before NASBB made this all a big deal, we're a lot safer from crazy people when we bore them.
*In 1911 Felix D'Herelle traveled to Argentina as a microbiologist hired to address the locust problems there. The problem was massive, every other year locusts would create the modern equivalent of billions of dollars worth of damage to cash crops and generate famine on the extraordinarily fertile pampas. It was so bad, and Argentina was rich enough then, that plans were being drawn up to import most of the worlds silver to build massively long 4 meter high walls across the pampas to stop the plagues. Apparently they'd have done it if they thought they could stop theft, but the Ministry of Agricultural Defense had grown to a 3,000 member strong bureaucracy dedicated to extraordinary campaigns to defeat them. D'Herelle's idea was to spread diseases of the locust itself ahead of the swarms to take advantage of the very terrifying sale that made farmers so helpless, against the plague. He ended up getting funding to find sick locusts, cultivate the disease though serial transfer between 100 locust cages, and thus isolate 100% virulent and contagious strains of a cocobacillus. When thousands of these carcasses were spread out ahead of a swarm they were brought to a epic halt within a few days. After two years of D'herelle's efforts the plagues ceased to be the issue that they once were in Argentina and the Pasteur Institute sent out his cultures to Columbia (where several successful trials were conducted), Cyprus and Algeria where they had significant effect.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:45 PM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

In the previous thread, there was a microbiologist who claimed it was a good thing for humanity that a slave-owner played mad-scientist on his slave women, as if gynecology could not have developed in any other, ethical and controlled way.

Slap*Happy, that's such a ludicrous distortion of that conversation that it's completely clear to me (as somebody who has no strong feelings either way about whether access to this research should be restricted) that you are completely incapable of intellectual honesty on this topic.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 3:02 PM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

We should probably start referring these buffoons as biosecurity theatre experts, because this simply isn't how you handle anything important, but this is exactly how you increase your funding by telling scary stories.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:36 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Slap*Happy writes "No. Otherwise everyone from Iran to Lichtenstein would already have one. The science involved with refining weapons grade nuclear material is very, very, very difficult to master and the applied science and subsequent engineering to master it is is very, very secret - and most of the nuclear powers out there could not have built a bomb without espionage or co-operation with an already existing nuclear power."

Everyone doesn't have the bomb because most nations don't want the bomb. Certainly nations like Canada could produce atomic weapons in very short order given motivation. Russia developed nuclear weapons less than 5 years after the Americans; it wouldn't take a motivated Canada any longer.
posted by Mitheral at 7:23 PM on February 13, 2012

The science involved with refining weapons grade nuclear material is very, very, very difficult to master

Nope, the science is straightforward, it's the technology that's difficult to master.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:12 AM on February 14, 2012

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