The Hyperbole That Caused Global H5N1 Hysteria

06/22/2012 12:21 EDT | Updated 08/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Imagine going to the security checkpoint of the airport and casually mentioning to the officer that you recently managed to create a bioweapon. Without a doubt, the reaction is sure to be swift and determined. You're arrested and interrogated; if officials are truly concerned, your life is investigated and you are sidelined from society. If there is even a hint of novelty, security policy worldwide may change in less than a day to reflect your case. You may find yourself in jail, prison or permanently under watch. In the meantime, all you can do is wonder why this is happening considering you were only sharing your latest achievement in World of Warcraft.

The scenario may seem ludicrous but the reality is that people are arrested at airports for acting, speaking or carrying items conspicuously. In many cases, these threats are found to be baseless and the apparent perpetrators are allowed to go about their business having learned the lesson that when it comes to public security, proper context is an absolute necessity and in its absence, there are consequences.

In the scientific world, the last year has been filled with the drawbacks of a similar abandonment of proper context. But rather than discussing a weapon of mass destruction, the focus of this controversy has been H5N1, the influenza virus strain feared to cause the next killer pandemic.

It all started back in September of 2011 when Dr. Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam gave a talk in Malta on his experiments with H5N1. Normally, these talks complement published studies but in this case, Fouchier's results were unpublished and so he was giving his audience a sneak peek into what was to come. Instead of being cautious about the subject matter, however, Fouchier went televangelist in front of his audience, claiming that someone convinced him "to do something really, really stupid" and that his laboratory "mutated the hell out of H5N1" leading to a virus that was "very bad news." He went on to explain that through the use of a ferret animal model, he had made a lethal H5N1 virus that could be transmitted by air.

In flu terms, that's the terrifying recipe for the pandemic we all fear.

The comments along with the lack of evidence from the paper copy of the study lead many bioethicists, biosecurity and biosafety experts to question whether this work should be published, let alone be performed in the first place. By November, the situation wasn't getting any better. Fouchier was claiming the virus as "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make" and a member of the United States Government's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which essentially recommends action to prevent bioterror, suggested that he could not "think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one." The hype was getting so great that people wanted to see the paper to learn more about this "doomsday" virus.

That's when the consequences started.

First was the arrest. On December 20, 2011, the NSABB released a press statement recommending to the U.S. government that the results of Fouchier's work (as well as that of another H5N1 researcher) be redacted such that they would no longer include "the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm." In addition, there was a call for a moratorium on research involving similar H5N1 viruses. Basically, the research was being stopped and censored due to the possibility of bioterrorism.

Next was the investigation in which countries worldwide sought to learn more about the so-called doomsday virus. The World Health Organization, biosecurity experts and even a member of the U.S. Congress became involved in the discussion hoping to learn more about the threat. The closed door meetings all came to a consensus that the research, if published and released to the public, could cause apprehension not only due to the threat of terrorism, but also for the potential of a lab breach resulting in an outbreak better placed in a Stephen King novel.

The inevitable policy changes followed. Calling the work of Fouchier and others "Dual Use Research of Concern" or DURC, a new policy was implemented to identify any and all government-funded research that had the same potential for problems. After months of investigation, the results were presented to the United States Senate. The result, however, was that only about a handful were deemed to be worth a second look and that for the most part, scientific research was being conducted in a safe, secure and trustworthy way.

Today, the final piece of the puzzle has been revealed. The article that caused so much panic and dismay has been published by Science and the world now has a chance to see what all the fuss was about. Unfortunately, the data speaks far less loudly than Fouchier's words in Malta.

Instead of a killer virus, Fouchier's group created something that could only kill if it was forced down the throat the same way Mrs. Squeers would in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. The virus could transmit in the air from ferret to ferret but infection was mild at best and not a single animal died. But the widest disparity between the words spoken in Malta and those in the paper is shown by the fact that the H5N1 that was mutated to hell was actually less harmful than the normal strains of H5N1 that are circulating in nature.

Context is one of the most important tools in communication and needs to be considered before sharing any information, whether it be at an airport or at a scientific conference. If Dr. Fouchier had spoken about his research in the same way as his paper states, none of the controversy would have happened. Yet he gave little thought about the effect on global biosecurity as a result of his hyperbole. Now, almost a year later, the world can move on from this having hopefully learned that sometimes, it's better to mind your P's and Q's.

Or in this case, your H5N1s.