Chuck Darwin posed a very good question here that I’m spinning off into a new discussion.
The work Taubenberger and others are doing on the evolution of influenza a century ago is fascinating and could very well be pertinent to prediciting future influenza virus genetic drift/shift, host-virus interactions, etc. However, I ask myself if the benefits of this work for future public health, as well as for general scientific interest, is worth the risks when it comes to biosecurity. With reverse genetics methods introduced a few years ago, any influenza virus can be generated through relatively common, albeit cumbersome, molecular biological techniques. For someone with a solid background in molecular biology and the ability to read the average materials and methods section, it would only take the proper resources to generate any strain someone wanted.
This concern extends to other viruses. I have a real problem with the sequence of smallpox being determined and made publicly available, as, once again, tedious but straightforward cloning techniques are now available to, in theory, produce smallpox virus “from scratch”. In short, I am curious what everyone here thinks about these issues. Is the human “need to know”, a trait that is particulary strong in scientists, going a little too far in some facets of biology? Should the virology community be making a greater effort to discuss the ethical and security implications of their work? Self-regulation in the early stages of recombinant DNA technology was very impressive. Have we lost our way while technology speeds forward?
spudbeach already responded in this comment and Dior here; I’m putting my thoughts below the fold and welcome comments from everyone else.
I’m much less concerned about the Spanish flu sequence falling into the hands of bad guys than I am about something like smallpox. H1N1 influenza viruses have been circulating in the human population now for many years, so it’s hard to say whether, even if it was reconstituted by someone intending to do harm and released, if it would have the same effect as it did in 1918. You’re probably also familiar with the work done on recombinant mousepox, where they found that by inserting the IL-4 gene into the virus, it made it more deadly. (News story on it here for anyone interested). If people have the technology and training to make viruses from scratch using reverse genetics, they probably also have the ability to create crazy stuff like the deadly mousepox (or something else that we’ve not even thought about). All kinds of things have the potential to be used by terrorists if they’re clever enough; I hate to see limits put on our knowledge or publications because of the risk that they might be used by the wrong people.