A handful of scientists have now turned the bird flu virus strain H5N1 into “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make,” according to creator virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center. The new strain, isolated and highly secured inside of a laboratory in the Netherlands, has been genetically modified such that it has the potential to be easily transferred between infected humans.
The H5N1 virus, which emerged in Asia in 1997, has resulted in 332 human deaths since 2003, according to the World Health Organization. This number, however, pales in comparison to the number of birds infected by the virus in that same time. According to a ScienceInsider article published in November, this is “because the virus spreads very inefficiently between humans…” and has thus so far been “unable to set off a chain reaction [in humans] and circle the globe.” So far, the viral destruction seen in the movie Contagion is held at bay by the inefficient human transmission of this particular virus.
But this barrier to human transmission has been broken down in the confines of select medical laboratories, including the Erasmus Medical Center in The Netherlands.
Fouchier’s studies presumably show that scientists who believe that H5N1 is unlikely to ever trigger a human pandemic, due to genetic and reproductive constraints, are dead wrong. Fouchier’s modified strain of H5N1 is ‘airborne’ and easily transferred between ferrets, humans ‘close cousins’ when it comes to studying how easily a flu virus is transmitted.
Criticizers of the man-made lethal strain of H5N1 have been loud about their judgments that the studies should never have been done. The lethal strain could be harnessed for mass destruction by bio-terrorists and other malefactors, especially when the details of the study, and how the lethal virus strains were created, are published in Nature and Science, where the study manuscripts are still under review. On the other hand, many infectious disease researchers argue that the studies could potentially lead to better preventative measures, vaccines and antiviral drugs against vicious human-adapted flu strains in the future. Many of these researchers argue that the experimental details should be provided without censorship to infectious disease researchers around the globe, in the interest of public health.
Who is right, and what should be done to prevent the studies from being used for harm vs. good? Should Nature and Science be asked not to publish the papers? Should the final papers be ‘censored’ for details on how these dangerous ‘bugs’ were created? “We don’t want to give bad guys a road map on how to make bad bugs really bad,” biodefense and flu expert Michael Osterholm told ScienceInsider.
Or, should grant proposals for these lethal variants of H5N1 studies have gone through a special review process before research was ever started at the Erasmus Medical Center? Many argue that these experiments set the stage for more rigorous review and approval processes of research that could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.
A live chat debate will be held today, hosted by Science, about the censorship of experiments whose results could ‘fall into the wrong hands’, including lethal virus transmissibility studies. Follow the chat below.
Read More about the controversial experiments.
Image 1. Generic Influenza virus structure. CDC.