On November 23, 2011, Science Insider ran a story about a genetically modified flu virus – locked up in a medical faculty building in the Netherlands – with the potential to trigger a flu pandemic and cause millions of deaths if it were released.
The virus is an H5N1 bird flu strain that has been genetically altered.
It now transmits easily between ferrets, which closely mimic the human response to flu.
The scientists who engineered this virus to be so easily transmitted now want to publish a scientific paper about how they did it. They’re said to be “bracing” for a media controversy.
The scientist whose team created this virus is Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center. He told Science Insider that the genetically modified bird flu virus strain is “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.”
Fouchier’s work is now part of a debate over what is called dual-use research. That is research with the potential to benefit humanity, or harm it, should the research details or manufactured materials fall into the hands of bioterrorists.
The current strain of H5N1 has caused about 600 known cases of flu in humans since it emerged in Asia in 1997. Those rare human cases are often fatal; there have been fewer than 500 deaths so far. So the virus is deadly, but not thought to be contagious enough to cause a global pandemic at this time.
The genetically altered virus, on the other hand, is very contagious. There are fears the modified virus could be used for bio-warfare, if it fell into the wrong hands.
The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is reviewing the situation. NSABB chair Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist who has worked on anthrax for many years, told Science Insider his group plans to issue a public statement soon along with additional recommendations about this type of research. He commented:
We’ll have a lot to say … I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one. I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.
Some scientists say that’s reason enough not to do this sort of research. Like the rest of us, they picture the virus possibly escaping from the lab, or terrorists or rogue nations using the published results to fashion a bioweapon.
Fouchier’s team believes in its research, however. Fouchier said they set out answer the question: Does H5N1, which rarely causes human disease, have the potential to trigger a pandemic? He said knowing the exact mutations that make the virus transmissible enables scientists to look for them in the field and take more aggressive control measures when one or more show up. He said his study also enables researchers to test whether H5N1 vaccines and antiviral drugs would work against the new strain.
Biodefense and flu expert Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, told Science Insider that Fouchier’s team has the support of influenza scientists. He said these studies are important because there are potential benefits for public health.
For instance, the results show that those downplaying the risks of an H5N1 pandemic should think again.
Bottom line: A scientific team in the Netherlands has used genetic modification to create a strain of H5N1 bird flu that is easily transmissible among humans. They now want to publish their results.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.