Bird Flu: Any Information to Declare?

By Carl Zimmer | March 13, 2012 2:19 pm

One thing that’s fascinated me about the ongoing debate about the manipulated bird flu (check out my pieces for Slate, the Loom, and the Times for background) is that it comes down, in large part, to information. Should the scientists who turned bird flu into a mammal-to-mammal virus make the details of their experiments public?

The debate has also touched on the concern that the viruses themselves might escape their labs. And yet the physical viruses have remained mostly in the background. If the information alone manages to get out, that might be enough for virologists to recreate the viruses. In fact, at a recent meeting about the flu in DC, a lot of the discussion about the security of these virus strains centered on the hard drives where the data is now stored.

The focus on information reflects how far synthetic biology, bioinformatics, and the Internet have all come in recent years. And there’s now a new twist on this information debate, reported in a Dutch newspaper and followed up on by CIDRAP. One of the studies in question was conducted in the Netherlands. In a March 7 letter to the Dutch parliament, the country’s minister of public health, welfare, and sport, Dr. E. I. Schippers, has floated the idea of blocking publication of the full details of that study because of export law. Here’s a snippet of the CIDRAP story–

“Is there a proliferation risk associated with unlocking all research information and, if so, how do the risks relate to the benefits of public health identified by the consensus points of the technical consultation of the WHO?” Schippers wrote. “The Netherlands has insisted that the proliferation risks from releasing this knowledge as well as the advantages for public health have to be carried out first.”

The letter then raises the export permit question, stating: “An export permit is required for export of the bird flu virus outside the European Union and for the transmission of detailed information about the virus. For the WHO consultation in Geneva on February 16-17, the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation issued this kind of license to a small group of health experts under strict conditions.

“If an export permit is requested for publication of (parts of) information, the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation will, in his judgment, weigh the interests for health, science and safety risks.”

The letter goes on to say that the government seeks a “balanced judgment of this research and the publication of the results,” weighing the advantages and disadvantages from all angles.

In response to an e-mailed request today, Fouchier told CIDRAP News he would not comment on the letter.

The Mar 9 story in the Volkskrant was brief. According to a machine translation, the story said the government is “intent on possibilities to prevent the recipe for the new flu virus from Rotterdam” from being shared with the rest of the world.

The story went on to say that Bleker, the secretary for agriculture and foreign trade, “thinks . . . the publication of the recipe can be avoided by refusing an export license.” The report added some background information about the research but gave no further information about Bleker’s views or intentions.

I have never heard of export controls being put on information about virus mutations or any other basic information about biology. I’m no expert on export licenses, so I may be wrong. I’ve been skimming through export.gov without much luck. But, honestly, I really feel that the best guidance I could get at this point is in the stories of Borges.

[Hat tip Helen Branswell]

Comments (5)

  1. Volker Stollorz

    For those you can read german at faz.net (http://www.faz.net/aktuell/wissen/medizin/biosicherheit-kuenstlicher-viren-wir-muessen-die-risiken-aushalten-11653765.html) you will find a nice opinion piece from german scientists on the issue why the new synthetic virology creates a new dilemma for biosafety and biosecurity, because basically a genetic sequence is just information on a sheat of paper the flow of which you cannot control like the export of centrifuges to enrich uranian or other stuff to build a bomb. So also the dutch idea seems ridiculous, it follows the logic of the classical Dual-Use Dilemma, which is a dead as a dodo in times of synthetic virology, where you can copy a virus at almost any pace capable of doing decent virology. Here is the summary concerning export control:

    Das neue Dual Use-Dilemma: Die Informationsgrundlage der Wissenschaft fordert neue Konzepte in der Sicherheitspolitik

    Die Problematik und Ambivalenz der synthetischen Biologie geht über die aktuelle Debatte um die Forschungen am Vogelgrippevirus hinaus. Hier, wie auch an anderen Experimenten, zeigt sich, dass diese Forschungen nicht nur den neuen Gegebenheiten des Informationszeitalters unterliegen, sondern ihren Gegenstand in der Information selber haben. Dies ist ein neues Dual Use Dilemma, denn hier geht es nicht nur um den Aspekt, dass man physische Objekte in zivilen oder militärischen Kontexten verwenden und damit eine Bedrohung darstellen kann. Neu und besonders ist, dass man aufgrund der Information, z.B. im genetischen Code, in die Lage versetzt wird, dieses Wissen auch im übertragenen Sinne anzuwenden. Dieses wissensbasierte Dual Use entzieht sich im Gegensatz zum klassischen, materialbasierten Dual Use den konventionellen Konzepten der Sicherheitspolitik. Mit der Biowaffenkonvention (BWC), dem Ausfuhrverbot (BAFA), etc. ist dieser neuen Dimension von Biosecurity nicht beizukommen. Hier gilt es, in Zukunft noch einmal neu über Konzepte zur Sicherheitspolitik nachzudenken und internationale Vereinbarungen zu treffen.

  2. Carl, you may want to look at the US universities’ export control pages:

    http://www.research.northwestern.edu/osr/export_controls.html

    http://export.stanford.edu/

    As for exporting information, see especially the “deemed export” rules, which regulates who may and may not work on certain projects, based on citizenship.

  3. Brian Too

    Rather famously, the U.S. used to classify encryption technology as a weapon, which subjected encryption technology to export controls.

    The Clinton administration relaxed (eliminated?) this classification in the late 1990′s. The issue was that commerce on the Internet really needed strong encryption for security reasons. Strong encryption was available for Windows (for example) but it was an add-on option. The attribute of being optional made the strength of encryption available too unreliable for casual/mass market use.

  4. Bob Green

    I was going to mention encryption as well. My recollection was that actual implementations in hardware or software were embargoed but publication of the algorithms was not. Given how easy it was to implement the algorithms, the embargo has no useful effect and just put US vendors at a significant disadvantage. In open source software, there was a period where you could download a network stack from the US and an encryption implementation from Europe to get a full encrypted stack. My impression was that this was mostly a turf war within government and between government and vendors. Growth of internet commerce that depends on strong encryption closed the deal.

  5. Mark Van Cleve

    I may be missing something here, but is this cat not already out of the bag? It’s public knowledge that the way he came up with a mammal-to-mammal virus was passaging it through a series of lab animals. It must not have been obvious to do this, because he didn’t try it until late in the game. Given that knowledge, how critical is knowledge of the sequence?

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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