It would be helpful if scientists who work with deadly diseases were given as much attention as Hollywood’s panicky and inaccurate contributions to the debate.

Pandemic is a very scary word. It probably does not help that it starts with “pan” and ends with “ic”. It also probably does not help that outbreaks of deadly diseases are a favourite topic of science fiction.

There have been increasingly frequent outbreaks in books, comics, films and videogames recently, from the Resident Evil franchise and 28 Days Later to Stephen King’s novel The Stand and – for those who stayed until after the closing credits – the final scene of last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And those are just the ones where the pandemics are not only deadly, but were deliberately created by scientists, only to somehow escape and wreak havoc on the oh-so-infectable public. 

There are rare instances where the focus is on the consequences of a pandemic rather than who is to blame – most notably The Andromeda Strain or last year’s star-heavy Contagion, which plausibly showed the rapid disintegration of society as a lethal infection spreads round the world. Even that, though, came with a wilfully scarifying tagline: Don't talk to anyone. Don't touch anyone.

All of these get under our skin, into our heads and help transmit the all-too-catchy notion that scientists are not to be trusted, and that given half a chance they will be the death of us all. 

Some of this fear is entirely rational, of course. Talk to those in the know and a regular refrain is that not only are we “overdue” for a pandemic of some kind, but that in our increasingly interconnected world we have made it ever easier for viruses to spread rapidly, without making similar advances in controlling them. We have turned our society into a potential tinderbox, so we have to be very wary about sparks.

Lethal tinkering

This wariness now includes the bright sparks who are trying to understand what makes particular forms more infectious and/or virulent. If they start tinkering with bird flu – and they are – to make potentially more lethal forms of the virus – and they have – then that is bound to lead to headlines with various permutations of “Mutant Bird Flu Research Fears”. Especially given that in the recent past, nasty diseases supposedly under tight lab security – such as foot and mouth, and even smallpox – have managed to escape. 

The researchers say their work is crucial: without understanding how a deadly virus like bird flu works, it is very difficult to defend against it. Others say that potentially constructing and publishing the blueprint for something which could have the “characteristics of an ultimate biological weapon unknown even in science fiction” is foolhardy, and needs to be stopped. 

Among the groups on this side of the debate is the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which has raised concerns that current work on bird flu could inadvertently put all of the (possibly infected) ducks in a row, potentially enabling a devastating new pandemic to be unleashed – and not by accident, but potentially deliberately by bioterrorists. They want key papers redacted, with all information removed that might conceivably enable someone to use viruses as weapons. That might put off anybody thinking of branching out into biological warfare, but it would definitely stymie the normal free flow of ideas between researchers in the field. It might also leave you with the very worst kind of scientific papers – all of the literary style, but with none of the data.

These fears, and these attempted controls, have now led many leading researchers on avian influenza to down tools and lock up their laboratories. Not permanently, and not – at least in most cases – because they are worried they might unleash a new global killer. The voluntary “pause” they recently announced in a letter to top journals Nature and Science – and its recent extension - is to allow the issues around such work to be properly debated in an international forum.  But how likely is a reasoned discussion to happen when what you are discussing has the potential to cause greater population devastation than a full-scale nuclear strike, and where many of us have the facts contaminated by highly communicable outbreaks in fiction?

It is a problem that is not lost on researchers. In the catchily-titled Infectious Diseases in Cinema: Virus Hunters and Killer Microbes, the writers point out that cinema has historically regarded most areas of medicine as “repetitive” and “boring”. I say most areas, because of course there is an exception: pandemics. These, they write, “seem to be the only specialty that can offer cinema the required suspense”.

Hollywood hogwash

The paper is well worth a read – if only for the snarky film reviews. Operation Delta Force ignores scientific accuracy to focus on “poorly executed action”, whilst the writers of Mission Impossible 2 are lambasted for their “ignorance of Greek mythology, as well as clinical microbiology” – not the kind of review you find on Rotten Tomatoes very often.

The paper makes a serious point, however. Most films, it says, were “inaccurate”, no matter how sincere the efforts. Hardly a shock, I know, but it points out that the divide between science and fiction is blurred in many people’s minds, with the result that public opinion can also become clouded. Perhaps realising that the idea of Hollywood censorship might be unpopular, they suggest that this may not be a feasible step. Instead, they suggest that efforts toward communicating risks and informing the general public should be stepped up, perhaps by letting everyone know why your work on virulent flu strains could potentially prevent – rather than cause – a future pandemic

And that is just where we are now.

One of the leading signatories to the letter announcing the “pause” – Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands – told me: “In the US, the debate has been irrational. We’ve seen too little involvement from infectious disease specialists, but plenty from biosecurity specialists, who are not necessarily on top of this type of research. The reason for taking the 60 day pause is for us to communicate better.”   

I hope he is right, and they can communicate better. But I suspect the outcome will be coloured as much by what all involved fear as by what they say. And if there is one thing that can spread faster than a pandemic, it is fear.