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Dr. Lynn C. Klotz Headshot
Edward J. Sylvester Headshot

Resurrecting History's Pathogens: No Oversight for A Dangerous Business

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Humans have been ravaged throughout history by pandemics ranging from bubonic plague, which wiped out a third of Europe in the 1300s, to super-lethal flu such as that caused by the 1918 virus that killed 20 million to 40 million people worldwide in less than two years.

Then they became history -- at least we thought they did. In the past few years, scientists armed with the latest techniques in "molecular archeology" have resurrected the 1918 influenza virus. And just last month a European team published a study identifying two ancient strains of the bacterium Yersinia pestis that caused the 14th century plague. The team's goal is not to resurrect the ancient bacteria and their work is a long way from recreating living strains, but cutting-edge laboratory work in related areas suggests that it could be done, if not now, in the near future.

But should we do it? A recurrent theme of horror movies begins with the resurrection of a monster long dead, then the mayhem begins. What's different here? The entire goal of these researchers would be to understand if those ancient plague strains really were more deadly or were common versions spreading under medieval sanitation conditions.

A good reason, but not nearly good enough. Trite as many horror movies are, they deal with two very obvious questions: What if the monster escapes from the lab? What if a lab worker inadvertently carries it home? And those questions have never been answered systematically to establish solid, international science policy for a world in which new discoveries will almost certainly lead to more such opportunities for resurrection and other inherently risky ways of studying microbes' lethality.

Let's start with that voracious 1918 flu. What were the benefits of re-creating it in the lab? Obviously we may gain insight into why it was so deadly, but equally important we might develop a vaccine or treatment against a re-emergence -- a great benefit if only for the disturbing fact that we recreated it. It did not re-emerge in nature. What are the risks? Truly awful, which is why we and many of the nation's top infectious disease specialists believe bringing the virus back was a terrible mistake.

Dr. Donald Henderson, who was a leader in the WHO smallpox eradication campaign, said of re-creating the 1918 strain, "The potential implications of an infected lab worker -- and [of] spread beyond the lab -- are terrifying."

It is into this world that bubonic plague's ancient Y. pestis would be brought back to life by scientists who, regardless of good motivation, will find few rules of conduct, here or abroad, and none of them standardized. Is ancient Y. pestis just ordinary, plague-causing bacteria that succeeded because of 14th century sanitation? Or would it be like 1918 flu, just as terrible a killer today in the crowded cities of poor nations where antibiotics are in short supply? No one knows.

We've used the plague bacterium as an example only because the goals of the European researchers were so benign and the way forward into risky areas of applied research so clear, but the near future will bring increasing numbers of such discoveries, especially given such major recent achievements as Craig Venter's group's creating an artificial bacterium in the lab. The latter will certainly make it easier to recreate and manipulate dangerous microbes.

We want the benefits of these oncoming advances while minimizing risks, and for that there is some precedent in international controls now enforced by the World Health Organization, on experiments with the smallpox virus. These offer a proof of concept -- international controls on dangerous experiments can be implemented and followed. But they are not nearly far-reaching enough for a new world in which research such as we've suggested for plague will become increasingly less difficult and so increasingly more threatening if not controlled.

Fortunately, the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland created a model for required controls that should be a template for international oversight of dangerous experiments. Developed over several years with insights from dozens of international experts in fields including science and policy, biosecurity, arms-control, and lawyers, the Center's monograph contains all the necessary pieces to focus national and international discussion on this most important issue.

Perhaps its most important feature for independent-minded scientists is that most if not all of their pathogen research would never require oversight, and even work that carried some risk would require oversight only by a local body. Significantly, of course, local groups could not devise their own idea of oversight; requirements would be spelled out for everyone. And from that local level, scrutiny would intensify quickly.

Some work with anthrax and other known or potential bioweapons agents would require national oversight. And international oversight, the highest level, would be required for experiments that could put human beings everywhere at risk -work with smallpox, for example, or with an even-more lethal and contagious pathogen.

The Maryland template is a vital starting point for work that must begin now, while the horror stories are pure speculation.

Klotz and Sylvester are the authors of "Breeding Bio Insecurity: How U.S. Biodefense Is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk, and Making Us All Less Secure," University of Chicago Press, 2009.