Skip navigationPerils of publication


1. Scientific journals - muzzled!

2. Smallpox toolkit

3. Physical secrets

4. Biowar treasure chest

5. Making the decision


Plague bacteria like these are feared as potential bioterrorism agents. When airborne, the bacteria can cause epidemics of pneumonic plague. Image from CDC.


Vaccines are our first line of defense against viruses.  If smallpox, like the genetically juiced mousepox,  could evade vaccine,  it would become not just untreatable but  unstoppable.


Street sweepers burn refuse in a plague-ridden slum in western India. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the Surat area in 1994 after 51 people died from pneumonic plague. AP photo/John Moore.



The mousepox that roared
The January, 2001, Journal of Virology published an article about mousepox virus (it's a relative of smallpox) that hinted broadly at a way to make new, highly "improved" biological weapons. The research emerged, ironically enough, from the long biological war between the descendents of the early European immigrants to Australia, and the progeny of the mice, rats and rabbits that those early Europeans had brought to the continent.

Microscope image shows purple, circular organisms in between long, branching tan-colored entities. Text reads 'plague bacteria in blood smear. Note safety pin appearance.' The exotic mammals, especially the four-footed ones, wrought ecological havoc on Australia, which was short on natural predators. One control strategy, releasing mousepox virus to attack the pests, was quite effective, until the pests evolved resistance to mousepox.

In recent years, the pest-control scientists shifted gears and sought to use mousepox to sterilize the pests - to dupe the immune system into attacking the animals eggs as it would a foreign body. By the 1990s, scientists in Canberra had introduced a gene into mousepox virus, that seemed likely to cause the immune reaction.

The experiment succeeded, but in a roundabout fashion. The mice failed to reproduce, but only because they were too dead from mousepox. The gene-spliced virus even killed mice that had been vaccinated against mousepox.

One gene made the difference.

If one gene could do this to mice and mousepox, could it do the same with smallpox and humans? That's a chilling thought. Before smallpox was eradicated around 1980, it killed more people in the 20th century than guns and bombs put together (no small achievement).

The deadly, highly infectious nature of smallpox, together with evidence that the Soviets tried to make a weapon from it during the 1970s and 1980s, have made the virus a key concern of bioterror and biowar experts. Smallpox cannot be treated, but it can be prevented through vaccines. If smallpox, like the genetically juiced mousepox, could evade vaccines, it would become not just untreatable but unstoppable.

A masked woman clothed in a yellow sari bats at the flames rising from a pile of debri amid a cloud of dark smoke.

Of mice and men?
The prospect of adding one gene and causing a worldwide epidemic was a bit bothersome to the Australian scientists who did the mousepox work, but after some consideration, they opted for open debate (see "Designer Bugs" in the bibliography). Rather than allowing the results to be discussed only in hushed terms when immunologists and virologists bend into a second glass of whiskey late at night, the researchers felt that open publication was safer -even if the article might become available in medical libraries and Internet cafes around the world.

With the stakes as high as a return of smallpox, the decision begged for second-guessing, especially after the still-unsolved wave of anthrax attacks occurred in late 2001.

Could this type of scientific publication help terrorists make better bioweapons? Yes, says Raymond Zilinskas, director of the chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation program at the Institute for International Studies, who urges caution about this kind of research. While "... in general no restrictions should be placed on the publication of findings from basic research," increased scrutiny should be placed on "applied research findings related to, for example, the encapsulation of pathogens, increasing the virulence of microorganisms, the large-scale production of toxins, the transfer of virulence factors to non-pathogens and opportunistic pathogens, and others."

Dark-skinned boy covered in small pustules appears to sleep. The brutal effects of smallpox.Photo: CDC.

Such articles, he wrote, "should be carefully analyzed by peer reviewers or professional groups to determine whether they should be freely published or if some type of limitations should be placed on their distribution" (see "Open Publications as..." in the bibliography)

No smoking guns here
Since the Australian publication, the American Society for Microbiology, which publishes the Journal of Virology and other journals that could interest bioterrorists, has decided to use discretion in publishing. Samuel Kaplan, chair of the group's publications board, wrote us to say that reviews have, so far, raised few red flags about submitted articles. "What we have found in two instances of over 14,000 is that the language could be modified so as not to heighten the 'possible' implications of the article. This is not censorship, since inherent to the peer review process is the issue of presentation of the material."

It would be naive to expect anything more exciting from the review of articles in microbiology, he indicated. "Biological research is an incremental process whereby it is unlikely to find a smoking gun, i.e., an article that strikes 'terror' if it were to be published."

Indeed, Kaplan asserts in a second email, "We have experienced no outside interference from anyone or anything. We have experienced no pressure from anyone or anything. The actions of the American Society for Microbiology derive directly from its code of ethics. Had such pressures been applied (a hypothetical) we would have responded no differently than the actions which you note, have been taken."

One modern science is an old hand at this kind of worry.

The Why Files

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