- Just five tweaks to H5N1 makes it more contagious
- Contagious version of bird flu could cause pandemic
- Scientists divide over whether findings can be released
A Pakistani health official removes chickens from an infected farm, Gadap, Pakistan during an H5N1 epidemic: Now a Dutch scientist has engineered a new, more contagious version.
The H5N1 bird flu virus has killed 500 people – and outbreaks sparked terror around the world about the possibility of a global pandemic.
So far, the virus has not been contagious enough to pose a threat of a global pandemic. Sick people don’t pass it readily to the healthy.
But that might change.
At a flu conference in Malta this September, virologist Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands made an astounding, and terrifying, announcement.
He found that a few simple genetic tweaks to the virus made it far more infectious among ferrets – a standard animal model used to study how viruses spread among humans.
Fouchier found that a mere five mutations to the virus were sufficient to make it spread far more easily.
His genetic research was part of an international drive to understand H5N1 more fully.
But his discovery caused a storm of controversy.
It’s traditional for scientific research to be open – to allow fellow scientists to review the work of others, repeat their methods and learn from them.
But in this case, many experts say that the research should be suppressed – in case the new ‘tweaked’ virus is used as a bioweapon.
A more contagious version of H5N1 could be a terrible weapon in the hands of terrorists.
Fouchier’s work is now being scrutinised by an American committe called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, says NPR.
Virologist Ron Fouchier engineered a version of the H5N1 virus that was more contagious between ferrets – a standard ‘animal model’ for how infectious a virus might be between humans.
Bioterrorism experts are aghast at the idea of the research being released.
‘It’s just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus,’ says Dr Thomas Inglesby, director for the Centre for Biosecurity at the Universuity of Pittsburgh.
‘There are some cases that I think are worth an exception to the principle of openness,’ he told NPR. ‘I can only imagine that the process of deliberating about the publication of these findings is quite serious.’
Fouchier is not going to comment until the committee has made its decision about whether the findings should be published.
Experiments involving other, different variants of the virus have been published in the journal Virology.
Experts are divided about the benefits of publication – with some saying that the benefits of publishing, and studying, new variants of viruses can outweigh the risks.