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How to Start a Real Global Contagion

The H5N1 flu virus is seen in gold among the kidney cells of a dog. (Photo from the CDC)

“It’s just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus. And it’s a second bad idea for them to publish how they did it so others can copy it.”

Bioterrorism expert Dr. Thomas Inglesby is alarmed by a team of scientists meddling with the H5N1 bird flu virus and wanting to publish their results.

Dr. Inglesby, director of the Center for Biosecurity of the U. of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says openness in research is mostly for the good. But in this case, it’s not.

Researchers in the Netherlands studying the H5N1 bird flu virus have created a new strain that’s not only just as lethal as the original, but is also easily passed between humans and other mammals. This raises the danger of a massively dangerous Contagion-movie-style pandemic to a whole new level.

Ron Fouchier, lead researcher of the team that’s created the mutation, is now looking to publish the whole how-to. So is Yoshihiro Kawaoka, of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Tokyo, who conducted a similar study.

Some scientists support the research but advocate against publishing full details. Others say that cat’s probably already out of the bag. Retired arms control researcher Mark Wheelis writes:

“This is a good example of the need for a robust and independent system of prior review and approval of potentially dangerous experiments. Blocking publication may provide some small increment of safety, but it will be very modest compared to the benefits of not doing the work in the first place.”

Paul Keim, chair of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), says “I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one.” Keim has worked on anthrax for many years, but he adds, “I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”

Up to now, many scientists have thought that the bird flu virus is most likely unable to trigger a pandemic, because adapting to a human host would likely make it unable to reproduce. Others have said that the virus might be able to reshuffle its genes with a human strain, as happened in pigs in the swine flu scare two years ago, since pigs can host both human and avian flu strains. But the prevailing view was still that flu pandemics can only be caused by H1, H2, and H3 viruses, and not by H5.

The new study would seem to show that that’s all wrong, and that H5 can indeed mutate to a deadly human version.

Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, worries that the virus could escape from the lab, and that bioterrorists or rogue nations could simply use the published results to make a bioweapon. And in this case, it’s not like making an atom bomb, where one bomb can only do limited damage. In this case, once the virus is out there, the potential scale of catastrophe is limitless. “This work should never have been done,” Ebright said.

Nor does the NSABB have the power to prevent the publication of papers. All it can do is ask journals not to publish.