Just in case you missed it, here’s something straight out of a sci-fi thriller—except that it’s true and has been recently in the news: Scientists in a lab, working on a dangerous virus that usually kills half of those infected, have mutated it to make it as contagious as the common flu.
For as long as the virus remains locked up in a lab, we’re safe. But what if the virus escapes—or gets into the hands of bioterrorists? Unleashed, the virus could trigger a pandemic that would kill millions around the world.
So far, the Dutch scientist and the University of Wisconsin-Madison virologist whose bird flu researches sparked recent global controversy have agreed (on Jan. 20)—together with 37 other bird flu scientists—to suspend their research for 60 days.
The moratorium is meant to give the global scientific community time to determine how experiments can proceed without putting the world at risk of a potentially catastrophic bird flu pandemic—as devastating or worse than the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed around 100 million people, three percent of the world’s population at that time.
The controversial experiments involve a type of bird flu virus known as H5N1, which rarely infects people but is highly deadly when it does.
Experimenting with ferrets that transmit viruses the same way that humans do, the two researchers independently came up with new, more contagious forms of the bird flu virus that can be spread through the air.
The work, paid for by the United States government (the National Institutes of Health), was done by two separate research teams — at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Both research teams from Rotterdam and Madison have shown that viruses containing hemagglutinin from H5N1 strains can be passed through the air between ferrets, the Economist reports. Hemagglutinin is a protein that causes red blood cells to clump together.
The UW’s Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Erasmus Medical Center’s Ron Fouchier had submitted their research breakthroughs to the journals Nature and Science.
But fierce debates were set off last December when the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended, after reviewing the manuscripts, that published research findings should leave out key details on how the deadly virus was genetically altered to make it more easy to transit among humans.
The (NSABB) is an independent expert committee that advises the Department of Health and Human Services and other federal departments and agencies on matters of biosecurity.
This is only the second time such a suspension of biomedical research has ever been imposed in the U.S. The first time, scientists worldwide, worried over possible safety hazards research on recombinant DNA research (also known as genetic engineering) halted research from 1974 to 1976.
In February 1975, an international group of 140 biologists, physicians and lawyers gathered in California to draw up voluntary guidelines to ensure the safety of research that involved combining DNA from different organisms.
The main goal of the 1975 gathering was to address biohazards, but the conference also came up with recommendations on how to safely conduct experiments using recombinant DNA technology. Guidelines also banned certain experiments, like the cloning of recombinant DNA derived from highly pathogenic organisms.
February 2012 Geneva bird flu forum
The new 60-day moratorium will give time for a similar international forum, to be held this month in Geneva, where scientists can discuss the safety and direction of bird flu research—and determine if it can continue in a responsible manner, the World Health Organization’s director of health security, Keiji Fukuda, confirmed.
During this period, research into making the avian flu easier to transmit into mammals, as well as experimentation on H5N1 viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets, will be suspended.
The moratorium was brokered by Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Fouchier, the Dutch virologist whose research group at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam was the first to develop the highly contagious strain of H5N1.
Established in 1948, Fauci’s federal institute is tasked to coordinate and funds research on asthma, cholera, malaria and other tropical diseases, sexually transmitted infections, and other allergic, immunologic, and infectious diseases with the aim of improving prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of these illnesses.
Rhetoric in the scientific community and the media “was really getting too heated. . . I thought it would be really a good time for a timeout,” Fauci says.
Both Science and Nature, the world’s top scientific journals, published a letter on Jan. 20 explaining the moratorium decision.
In the letter published in the journals Nature and Science on Jan. 20, 39 scientists including Dr. Kawaoka and Dr. Fouchier defended the research, saying it was crucial to public health efforts, including surveillance programs to detect when the H5N1 influenza virus might mutate and spark a pandemic.
For the full letter see: Nature Letter
The two journals have also published reports on the research — but redacted to omit details that would let other researchers, including rogue scientists or terrorists, imitate the experiment to come up with bird flu viruses that are more contagious.
“We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks,” the letter states.
While the scientists say their work has important public health benefits, they acknowledge that it has sparked intense public fears that the deadly virus could accidentally leak out of a lab or be stolen by terrorists—resulting in a devastating pandemic.