The Independent today has a story entitled”Killer flu doctors: US censorship is a danger to science” – thanks, AJ Cann! – which details how the folk in the Netherlands who did the work do not think the USA should not be “…be allowed to dominate the debate over who controls sensitive scientific information that could be misused in biowarfare terrorism”.
Well, yes, join the club, guys! The article is quite reasonable – apart from a couple of points, noted below – but it ends on a suitably alarmist note “…the chances of a laboratory strain of H5N1 escaping into the wild remain high if it is stored in conventional flu-virus labs”, and “Regulators should not be sitting idly by, while the threat of a man-made pandemic looms”. Really? The undoubtedly very small amount of mutated flu that exists, relative to any engineered bioweapon in US or Russian labs, represents a clear and present threat to world health?
What dismayed me most, however, was how horrifyingly uninformed most of the commenters are – about H5N1 in particular, and science and science funding in general….! As I could not comment there – Disqus broke, apparently – I will do so here.
As for labelling the article “Killer Flu Doctors” – really! A little sensationalism, anyone?? Concerning the comment “…the details could be misused by rogue states or by biowarfare terrorists with access to rudimentary scientific knowledge and fairly standard laboratory equipment”: as a practicing molecular virologist, I can tell you that you would need a lot more than “rudimentary scientific knowledge” – you’d need skill in molecular biology, and especially in reverse genetics of (-)strand RNA viruses, as well as more than “fairly standard equipment” to even BEGIN to hope to make anything like a “killer” H5N1 from published details.
Additionally, a H5 N1 flu virus that is aerosol transmitted in ferrets – and how efficient was that, I ask? – may NOT be similarly transmissible or as easily (if it was easy) between humans. I will point out that people thought the SARS CoV outbreak was the “Big One” flu pandemic – but although it was aerosol transmissible, it wasn’t nearly as efficiently transmitted as the common flu, so did not spread as fast.
Thus, most of what the doomsayers are predicting could be simply hype – meanwhile, in countries far away from the US which seeks to regulate such work, the virus is already endemic, and mutating freely – and it would be VERY useful indeed to know what to look for!