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The Fear of the Known

Publishing the genetic sequence of a transmissible influenza virus might be scary, but harder decisions are yet to come

Robert L. Dorit

The Only Known Portrait

Eighty-seven years later, the first full-length portrait of the virulent 1918 influenza strain was finally completed. By piecing together fragments of the virus isolated from pathology samples preserved by the army and from the body of an Inupiat woman buried in ice for more than 75 years, scientists deciphered the full sequence of the virus.

The imminent publication of the reconstructed 1918 sequence generated considerable anticipation, but also significant anxiety. Could publication of the sequence amount to handing bioterrorists the blueprint for a lethal weapon? This issue had been carefully considered by the authors of the papers, the editors of the journals where they were ultimately published, and by a specially appointed committee of biosecurity experts (the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, or NSABB). All considered the benefits of publication to far exceed the risks. Despite this process, publication was nearly thwarted by last-minute concerns from U.S. government agencies and the secretary of Health and Human Services. But on October 6, 2005, the sequence of a 1918 influenza strain was finally published in Nature, and, the following day, a companion paper in Science described the effects of the reconstructed virus on mice.

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