The virus is an H5N1 avian influenza strain that has been genetically altered and is now easily transmissible between ferrets, the animals that most closely mimic the human response to flu. Scientists believe it’s likely that the pathogen, if it emerged in nature or were released, would trigger an influenza pandemic, quite possibly with many millions of deaths.
In a 17th floor office in the same building, virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center calmly explains why his team created what he says is “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make”and why he wants to publish a paper describing how they did it. Fouchier is also bracing for a media storm. After he talked to ScienceInsider yesterday, he had an appointment with an institutional press officer to chart a communication strategy.
Of course, there’s value to the research:
“These studies are very important,” says biodefense and flu expert Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. The researchers “have the full support of the influenza community,” Osterholm says, because there are potential benefits for public health. For instance, the results show that those downplaying the risks of an H5N1 pandemic should think again, he says.
Knowing the exact mutations that make the virus transmissible also enables scientists to look for them in the field and take more aggressive control measures when one or more show up, adds Fouchier. The study also enables researchers to test whether H5N1 vaccines and antiviral drugs would work against the new strain.
And we know how badly this sort of security works:
Osterholm says he can’t discuss details of the papers because he’s an NSABB member. But he says it should be possible to omit certain key details from controversial papers and make them available to people who really need to know. “We don’t want to give bad guys a road map on how to make bad bugs really bad,” he says.