Influenza Terrorism and the Power of Knowing Something Can Be Done

Researchers are being asked not to publish how they made bird flu easier to transmit, but the fact it can be done may spark deviant ingenuity.


Bloomberg News reports that a U.S. government-sponsored committee has asked Dutch researchers to withhold details on making a potentially virus more susceptible to transmission:

The study at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam described the genetic changes needed to make the H5N1 avian influenza strain spread easily among ferrets and potentially people. The research is under review for publication in the journal Science. It was commissioned by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the center said yesterday in a statement on its website.

Knowing the genetic sequence of a deadly, infectious strain may enable it to be recreated through reverse engineering. The censorship was requested by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, formed in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks and to advise the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The panel called for certain data to be kept secret after determining the risks of publishing it outweigh the benefits, the Erasmus Medical Center said.

This sounds like sensible, benign censorship, but is it a meaningful precaution? The news reminded me of a recent obituary in the New York Times for a developer of the B-52 bomber, Holden Whittington:

In 1945 George Schairer, a renowned Boeing aerodynamicist, was part of an expert group following American troops through Germany to snap up intelligence on German weapons. Mr. Schairer discovered that the Germans had performed extensive studies on swept-back wings. He sent a letter to Mr. Withington, who immediately began testing the concept in his wind tunnel.

In less than a month, Mr. Withington proved that swept-back wings worked. When they were combined with jet engines, the way forward seemed clear. He tested the new wing formulation for use in Boeing's B-47 bomber, the B-52's predecessor. He did his tests at night when power was cheaper, sleeping on a cot next to the tunnel.

The resulting six-engine jet bomber perplexed even Mr. Withington. "That's a mighty strange-looking airplane," he recalled thinking in a 2002 interview. "I wonder if it will really fly."

It did, and the B-47 bomber was used from 1951 to 1965.

The crucial stage was apparently not detailed plans, but the knowledge that swept-back wings could work. Even if you don't how to do something, just confirming that it is possible goes a long way to success, if only by justifying a big commitment of time and money that would otherwise seem questionable.

To give a very different physiological example, Roger Bannister was a British medical student whose research convinced him that the supposedly impossible goal of running a mile in four minutes could be achieved. It took other athletes less than two months to break the barrier, despite Bannister's biological and intellectual advantages.The key step was knowing what could be done. The summit of Mount Everest was also believed to be widely unattainable before the success of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay; it's still extremely hazardous -- at least 200 attempts have been fatal -- but fully 1,200 climbers succeeded in the next 55 years.

Unfortunately the same logic applies not just to inspiring milestones of the human spirit but to what I have called deviant ingenuity. Among biological security experts it's common to say that recombinant DNA is following the path of the computer into miniature, affordable systems, recalling in a dark way the name of the original Silicon Valley PC society, the Homebrew Computer ClubNature recently reported on the possibilities and limits of "garage biotech."

I have no idea of how hard it would be to weaponize flu. Our best defense may be that it would be impossible to use it against an enemy without exposure to the terrorist's own people. But if terrorists' motivation is chaotic rather than goal-directed, all bets are off. Thus it's probably a good idea not to make life easier for sociopaths, even if censorship is one of the tools that unfortunately give powerful people an illusion of control.