The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations health body, is raising concerns about a new strand of H5N1 bird flu virus. Recently two research teams, in the United States and Netherlands, genetically altered the virus making it easily transmissible and capable of causing lethal human pandemics.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, WHO’s top influenza expert Dr. Keiji Fukuda said, “This is not the kind of research that you would want to have out there”.
The research has prompted strong censorship request from U.S. security advisers who, according to Reuters, fear that publishing details of the research could give potential attackers the know-how to make a bioterror weapon.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health made a request to scientist at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to consider the ramifications and not publish full details of their work on how to make the strain deadly to humans.
Ron Fouchier, a researcher at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, is one of many researchers worldwide researching what kind of mutations could make the H5N1 more lethal to humans. He said he “easily” created the new contagious and deadly form of bird flu virus simply by mutating a few genes. Fouchier has agreed to keep certain details of methods from his published reports on the new strain.
Coming from ABC News, “We know which mutation to watch for in the case of an outbreak, and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late,” Fouchier said in a statement on the medical center’s website. “Furthermore, the finding will help in the timely development of vaccinations and medication.”
Not everyone is convinced. A recent WebMD blog had this to say:
“We are playing with fire,” say Thomas Inglesby, Anita Cicero, and D.A. Henderson of the Center for Biosecurity at UPMC.
“I think these were really stupid experiments that have little practical value,” blogs Howard Hughes Medical Institute evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen.
It’s a risk worth taking in some cases. We need to know more about a lot of horrible bugs. But because of how flu bugs evolve, there’s only a small chance any eventual H5N1 pandemic virus will be the same as the man-made version. Unless it’s an escaped Frankenflu bug.
The risk is small, but not zero. And there is a precedent. In 1977, a flu bug that had become extinct suddenly re-emerged on the USSR/China border, causing widespread epidemics in 1978. Despite official denials, most flu researchers believe the bug escaped from a lab.