Bioterrorism: One flu over the New York Times

By Tom McCutchan | Jan 19, 2012
Courtesy of: Centers for Disease Control Colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (seen in gold) grown in MDCK cells (seen in green). Avian influenza A viruses do not usually infect humans; however, several instances of human infections and outbreaks have been reported since 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

I've suffered through many catastrophes in my life. Only a few of them actually happened. — Mark Twain


There have been numerous reports in news recently about halting the publication of scientific data that, if commandeered by our enemies, could be used to create a bioterrorist weapon. The data in question describes a procedure that makes the avian flu virus (H5N1) transmissible through the air and therefore much more contagious. While some scientists want to stop the flow of information from our labs, another group of scientists are equally fervent in opposing this measure. To understand this polarization within the scientific community, I started sorting out and checking the validity of “the facts” that are being reported.

Articles in the media that support the suppression of data have attracted a lot of attention by repeating a particularly terrifying statistic: That the mortality rate from H5 N1 flu is higher than 60 percent. That would make it worse than the Black Death in the 14 Century (30 percent), and far, far worse than the deadly flu of 1918. But on what is this statistic based? It is based on the fact that in the past nine years, 573 seriously ill people, mostly in rural parts Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia, were hospitalized and diagnosed with H5N1. Of these 573,336 died. Saying “about 40 people a year die of the bird flu” is an equally true but also misleading statement.

The actual mortality rate cannot be calculated without knowing how many people were infected. What isn’t being accounted for is the number of people who got the flu and recovered without seeking medical attention. The larger this number is the lower the mortality rate becomes. The closest we can come to obtaining an infection rate is by measuring the number of people who have been exposed to the H5N1 virus. The term “exposure” indicates that enough flu virus has gotten into a person to alert his or her immune system to respond to the invader.

Dr. Peter Palese, of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and an influenza expert, suggests, on the basis of such analysis, that the mortality rate is dramatically lower than reported. In a lecture that was taped and posted on YouTube, Palese cites studies reporting that 10 percent of poultry workers and 3.7 percent of healthcare workers in Hong Kong had been exposed to the virus. Similar results come from studies done in Thailand and Indonesia suggesting that although many people become infected, few become sick enough to seek medical attention.

Bioterrorism is an undeniably important topic, and it is the responsibility of the news and science media to address any new developments relating to it. It is, however, equally their responsibility to guard against the spread alarmist misinformation. In my opinion, this is what is happening.

If terrorists really wanted to use the influenza virus as a weapon, they already have everything they need: Detailed descriptions of the 1918 flu virus and how to synthesize it from scratch were published in 2005. Alternatively, they could recreate the “bird flu” experiments using any of a wide number of available protocols and test it on human volunteers. Since they don’t have to follow ethical guidelines or spend their evenings filling out human-use protocols, this approach would be simpler and more likely to achieve the desired results.

Symptomatically, the 1918 virus would be a bioterrorist’s ideal because its victims hemorrhage blood through their eyes and ears. What better way to instill terror in a population than a sight like that?

One reason that an airborne-flu virus is unlikely to become a bioterrorist weapon is that it would quickly spread throughout the world, just as it did in 1918. The H1N1 flu is an equal opportunity killer. It likes terrorists every bit as much as it likes the rest of us. All they could accomplish by releasing this virus would be an overall reduction of the world’s population. While this might be a sociopath’s fondest dream, it would not, as far as I know, do much for the terrorist agenda. Making the virus airborne ensures its passage worldwide, and this makes it a less, rather than more, viable terrorist weapon.

Another problem for would-be bioterrorists is that when H1N1 first broke out, apparently in Kansas, it was a fairly run-of-the-mill flu. It was only when it reached the trenches of World War I, which were an abomination of filth and sickness, did it mysteriously turn into a vicious killer. It seems possible that the 1918 flu teamed up with some other, foul disease inside the trenches. No other flu epidemic before or since has had the hemorrhagic features or mortality of the 1918 pandemic. Regrettably for terrorists, when the surviving genome sequences of H1N1 were analyzed, no one seems to have been looking for a companion bacterial or viral disease that might have been riding with it. The analytic technique the scientists used only allowed them to find what they were looking for. We may therefore never know what turned the ordinary flu into such a horrific disease. And luckily, neither will bioterrorists.

Opening up a debate on the censorship of scientific data is a good thing because it will help establish a way for us to address similar issues in the future. While a decision to publish the bird flu data in its entirety appears to be the correct thing to do in this situation, some censorship may be required in the future. The bird flu incident provides us with a good trial run.

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