• Avian Influenza virus H5N1 is deadly. True.
• H5N1 cannot be transmitted human to human. True. Until now.
Scientists worldwide have been concerned with the question whether the H5NI virus would mutate, and be transmissible from human to human. Under US government funded research, scientists have successfully mutated the H5N1 bird flu virus into a form that could cause a deadly worldwide human pandemic, causing serious concern from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and biosecurity experts.
“We have discovered that this is indeed possible, and more easily than previously thought,” says Ron Fouchier, lead researcher at Erasmus Medical Center (Erasmus MC), in Rotterdam Netherlands. “In the laboratory, it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol transmissible virus that can easily be rapidly spread through the air. This process could also take place in a natural setting.” The WHO issued a warning to scientists saying their work carries significant risks however they have also acknowledged that there is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these studies.
As with any other research, Erasmus MC met the highest possible safety standards in the study. A permit was granted by the Ministry for Infrastructure and the Environment for the study and the safety was monitored by international experts, partly because it was commissioned by the American National Institutes of Health, so why then all the concern? The two studies conducted by Japanese, U.S and European scientists sparked the international debate on the security issues concerning scientific research as some fear the virus could escape from the lab (as previously happened with the SARS – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – virus) or publishing the research could increase the likelihood that terrorists will try to recreate their own killer flu.
Could history repeat itself?
China saw an outbreak of SARS in 2004. Originating from two researchers at the National Institute of Virology in Beijing, they developed SARS in late March/mid-April. The outbreak was reported on April 22 and the Institute was closed a day later.
Flu experts say the benefits of publishing the research outweigh the risks of bioterrorism despite the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, the top biosecurity panel in the US, requested the virologists not to publish the research in detail. The panel recommended that the two principal scientific journals, Science and Nature, reconsider plans to publish information about the methods used to create the H5N1 virus. It was the first time that the Advisory Board, which was formed after the anthrax attacks of 2001, had issued such a request. Questions of bioterrorism are one thing. Making sure further work with the virus is done safely is another.
The world’s top flu labs recently agreed to a voluntary moratorium on the research, while those issues are discussed. WHO spokesman Keiji Fukuda, says while the moratorium is extended, the WHO is convening another meeting with biosafety experts to discuss ways to take the research forward safely. Fouchier disagrees with the delays, “We scientists have to communicate and we do so via publications.” History has shown that influenza pandemics can range enormously in their impact. The 1918 influenza pandemic started relatively mild, however it ended up killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide, making it the most severe influenza pandemic in history. Since 2003, 59% of people that were infected with the bird flu virus have died.
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