Wetenschap - 26 januari 2012

‘Just publish the dangerous virus'

Rotterdam-based and American virologists have halted a study of the bird flu at the request of the American government. The government is afraid that terrorists might be able to use the research results to manufacture biological weapons. The researchers had made a version of the H5N1 bird flu virus which may be contagious between humans, and they wanted to publish its DNA sequence. Should you make this kind of information public? Yes you should, says Virology professor Just Vlak.

‘In theory someone else could make a virus like this too', says Vlak. ‘There is nothing top secret about this research. Virologists have previously recreated and published the Spanish flu virus, which caused a pandemic a hundred years ago. The point is that there are only a couple of labs in the world that can make this. You need a great deal of knowledge to be able to manufacture a specific mutation, and you also need specialized equipment. A specialist lab can do it in a couple of months, but we don't have the experience or the equipment to do it in Wageningen. It would take us years to copy it.
I would go public with the research and then set to work on preventive measures such as developing a vaccine. The mutation the researchers have made is likely to occur in nature one day. The question then is whether the virus will spread quickly under pressure from natural selection. I don't know whether the researchers have calculated the chances of an epidemic of this virus. That is pretty crucial information to have.
This new mutant is highly virulent, according to the researchers, so we must be alert. But I don't believe in an information veto on the virus. There is no point in only telling a thousand experts either, because in no time the information will get out. In 1973 they tried to veto the development of genetic modification, but reality catches up with you in the end.'