Did U.S. government lie about deadly virus?
Nov. 9, 2005
Special to World Science
U.S. officials seem to have quietly reversed an
assurance they gave publicly last month—that copies of a deadly virus, which scientists recently recreated, would
not leave a secure government facility.
Now, authorities acknowledge they’ll mail copies of the germ, which killed an
estimated 50 million people in 1918, to
qualified laboratories that apply for it.
|Terrence Tumpey, a microbiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, examines reconstructed 1918 Pandemic Influenza Virus inside a specimen vial.
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 the head of
an anti-biological weapons organization.
But U.S. officials deny misleading anyone.
Scientists and government officials announced
last month that they had designed a virus identical in most key respects to
the infamous 1918 “Spanish
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 else for
The claim appeared in a number of 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
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
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 the 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.”
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