U.S. officials seem to have quietly reversed an assurance they gave publicly last month—that a deadly virus, which scientists recently recreated, would not leave a secure government facility.
Terrence Tumpey, a microbiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, examines reconstructed 1918 Pandemic Influenza Virus inside a specimen vial. (Courtesy CDC)
Now, authorities acknowledge they may mail copies of the germ, which killed an estimated 50 million people in 1918, to qualified laboratories that apply for it.
The apparent flip-flop suggests the initial assurance might have been a lie, or deception, meant to calm a nervous public about the risky project, says a director of an anti-biological weapons organization.
But U.S. officials say they didn’t mislead anyone.
Scientists and government officials announced last month that they had designed a virus identical in most key respects to the infamous 1918 “Spanish Flu” virus.
The project’s stated purpose was to let scientists study the virus and thereby design vaccines against related pathogens, including a bird flu that is alarming governments worldwide.
But some experts expressed doubts from the start about the venture’s safety. They said the virus could accidentally escape or land in terrorist hands.
In response to such concerns, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Ga., a U.S. agency, said the virus would be held securely at the agency’s headquarters, and wouldn’t be sent elsewhere for research, according to some news reports.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Oct. 6 that Jennifer Morcone, a spokeswoman for the agency, had given such an assurance. If researchers from outside the agency want to work with the virus, the paper quoted her as saying, “We will consider hosting researchers at the CDC if they go through the same training and clearances required of our researchers.”
The research journal Nature reported similar assurances by the officials. The Chicago Tribune cited CDC Director Julie Gerberding saying the agency had no plans to share the virus with other labs.
The apparent reversal, when it came, was quiet.
It appeared in the form of a cryptic notice—which the agency was legally required to publish—in the Oct. 20 Federal Register, the official publication of federal government notices.
It said the agency would add the virus to a “list of select agents and toxins” maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Basically, this means the virus can be mailed out, agency spokesman Von Roebuck acknowledged, according to a news article in the Nov. 10 Nature.
“Labs that are registered to work with select agents—in particular, dangerous pathogens that are subject to specific handling rules—will be able to request the virus,” Nature reported, citing Roebuck. The parcels could travel via commercial carriers, the journal added.
A staff member who answered the phone at the CDC’s media relations office on Tuesday told World Science that the agency hasn’t announced the new policy publicly, as far as he knows.
The staffer, who identified himself as Chris Cox, referred further questions to Roebuck. Roebuck said in an emailed statement to World Science that the agency didn’t mislead anyone, because officials said only that they were not planning on sending out the virus.
He didn’t deny it would ever happen, though. “Requests to obtain the virus for investigations at non-CDC laboratories that advance the science and understanding of influenza pandemics will be considered on a case-by-case basis,” he wrote, adding that such mailings follow strict safety procedures.
The policy dismayed the project’s critics.
Edward Hammond, director of the U.S. office of the Sunshine Project, a non-profit group that works against chemical and biological weapons useage, said he wasn’t sure whether the agency’s original statement was a lie.
“Did they lie, as in did they know that they were going to flip this policy within a week? I don’t know—it’s difficult to tell, but they certainly in my judgment deceived,” he said.
On the other hand, he said, any expert on the subject would have known that the policy as originally stated was “a fiction to begin with.” That’s because even without the mailing, anyone with the right equipment could have reconstructed the virus using the information released as part of the project.
The no-mailing claim “was a red herring from the get-go,” he said. “It was intended to reassure, when they knew that the assurance that most people would draw from it was based on a misunderstanding.”
But the policy change raises the dangers still further, said Jens Kuhn, a research scholar at Harvard Medical School.
“There’s a big risk associated with it,” he said. He added that officials didn’t announce the mailing policy to begin with “probably because they would have gotten the same kind of heat they’re getting now.”
On the other hand, it might have been a good idea not to announce it, as this could further encourage bioterrorists, said Kuhn, who, like Hammond, opposed the project from the start.
“I don’t understand the logic,” he said, “of creating a threat so we can learn to defend against that threat, that had not existed.”