Managing Bio-threat Information Under The WHO International Health Regulations Of Biosecurity | 58152
Journal of Infectious Diseases & Therapy
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Sharing security threat information is a challenge for governments and their agencies. Especially in biotechnology and
microbiology the agencies do not know how to classify or to disclose collected information on potential bio-threats. There
is vague border between man-made and natural biological threats. An example is the several month delay of the publication
of research on the transmissibility of H5N1 avian influenza virus in the leading scientific journal Science by researchers of the
Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The publication was delayed in 2012 by several months due to the
fact that various organizations first wanted to investigate whether the details could be misused by malicious individuals. In
the study the researchers show that only a small number of mutations were necessary to change the H5N1 virus so that it can
spread through the respiratory system between mammals. This implies that the risk of a H5N1 pandemic cannot be ruled out.
On the other hand, this information can be used to develop new therapies and/or vaccines for influenza. It gives also insight
into the disease mechanism, which helps in the prevention. The same arguments are valid for therapeutic antibodies, like the
antibodies, which are developed to treat anthrax. They have an extreme high affinity for the lethal factors of the bacterium and
stop the disease but the same antibodies could be misused to select the most pathogenic strains. Micro-organisms have from
nature itself the capacity to reorganize and change their pathogenicity, which could lead to a pandemic spread of a disease. But
if the disease is too infectious and too deadly, like some stains of Ebola Virus are, the lethality will be locally limited. But if the
incubation time is longer in a certain strain of an Ebola virus, the risks on epidemics and even a pandemic is much higher. The
knowledge of these natural mutation mechanisms could be misused to weaponize micro-organisms. It enables the engineering
of the lethality like it is done with some anthrax strains. Are these laboratory techniques considered as public science or should
it be classified? Academics want to publish and to share information for the progress of science and to find useful applications.
The Rotterdam scientists were really annoyed when their research was blocked for publication and feared that other groups
would be first in publishing a part of their obtained experimental results. Biosafety is already common practice in microbiology
but biosecurity is often still questionable. A ‘Code of Conduct’, like the Dutch Academy of Science has developed, would help;
especially for the so-called insider risk. Educational programs for the identification and assessment of risks and threats to
security have to be developed to give scientists bio-threat awareness and for government officials to rationalize the real threat,
without damaging the progress of science.
Stef Stienstra is a strategic and creative Consultant in Biomedical Science with a parallel career as a Commander of the Reserve of the Royal Dutch Navy. For the Dutch Armed Forces he has responsibility for the counter measures in CBNRe threats and (medical) consequence management both in a military and a civilian (terrorism) setting. In his civil career he works internationally as a Consultant or as Scientific Supervisory Board Member for several medical and biotech companies, merely involved in biodefense. He is also a Visiting Professor for Punjab University in Pakistan and Rhein-Waal University in Germany. He has completed his studies in Medicine and in Biochemistry at the University of Groningen in Netherlands and has extensive practical experience in cell biology, immuno-hematology, biodefense and transfusion medicine.