Suppressing superflu recipe: nanny state or drawing a sensible line in the sand?

By Siouxsie Wiles 29/11/2011

Reading New Scientist gives me my weekly reality check regarding how little I know about anything. This week I found out about a committee in the USA called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity which is charged with providing advise and guidance on the potential of research to be misused to pose a biological threat to public health or national security.

According to this article, the journal Science has recently turned over a research paper submitted by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The paper describes research on Influenza A virus subtype H5N1, more commonly known as bird flu.

H5N1 is pretty lethal in people, killing around 60% of those known to have been infected with the current Asian strain. Thankfully transmission from birds to humans is pretty inefficient; handling infected poultry being one of the major risk factors.

Influenza viruses are renowned for their high mutation rates, and the fear is that H5N1 may mutate to transmit more readily between humans. If it does this, and retains its lethality then we may have a Contagion-type scenario on our hands.

And apparently that is just what Ron Fouchier’s paper describes. Using ferrets, the team watched H5N1 mutate to become airborne. And all it took was 5 mutations. The worry now is that publishing this information would allow some crackpot to recreate the mutations, making a highly contagious and lethal strain of flu, the ultimate biological weapon. A more likely scenario is that someone working on the strain in the lab would have an accident.

I’m really not sure where I stand on this. Knowing how these viruses change is really important so I can see why this work should be done and published. And creating the superflu strain requires specialist knowledge and facilities. Not someone messing about in their garage. But then supervillians tend not to be loners working in their garage. Saying that, it would certainly solve the whole overpopulated-world running out of space and resources problem. Just saying.

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