My son has just alerted me to a news item from the Russia Today site, which reports the following dry little item:
“A virus with the potential to kill up to half the world’s population has been made in a lab. Now academics and bioterrorism experts are arguing over whether to publish the recipe, and whether the research should have been done in the first place.
The virus is an H5N1 bird flu strain which was genetically altered to become much more contagious. It was created by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who first presented his work to the public at an influenza conference in Malta in September.”
Right – nothing to get upset about, then? Or….
Some background: what researchers did was to passage – that is, repeatedly infect new animals with virus from another animal – H5N1 influenza virus from birds, in ferrets.
Why ferrets? Well, it was discovered by accident some 70+ years ago, that human flu viruses are very infectious in ferrets, and the reaction of ferrets to some extent predicts what will happen in humans – although they tend to die rather often from lab infections.
The result of the passaging was that the H5N1 became aerosol-transmissible – in other words, via droplets produced by sneezing – which was a new property. From the article:
“After 10 generations, the virus had mutated to become airborne, which means ferrets became ill from merely being near other diseased animals.
A genetic study showed that the new, dangerous strain had only five mutations compared to the original one, and all of them were earlier seen in the natural environment – just not all at once. Fouchier’s strain is as contagious as the human seasonal flu, which kills tens of thousands of people each year, but is likely to cause many more fatalities if released.
“I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist who has worked on anthrax for many years, told Science Insider. “I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.””
Hence the rather alarming headline on RT – which was
“Man-made super flu could kill half humanity”
Nothing scare-mongering there, then!
Let us dissect this so called apocalypse bug, though.
“Fouchier’s strain is as contagious as the human seasonal flu, which kills tens of thousands of people each year, but is likely to cause many more fatalities if released.”
In ferrets. No-one has shown that it causes disease in humans at all. And there’s another problem: the article reports that:
“…the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB)…[has] a very difficult decision to make. Fouchier wants his study to be published. So does virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who led similar research in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo, and reached comparable results. And it is up to NSABB to give them the green light.”
Pardon me for being confused, but…the NSABB is a US body, right? And Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka are Dutch and Japanese, respectively?
And pardon me again, but isn’t it a good idea to know which mutations would turn H5N1 into a ravening, destructive supervirus? So we can look for it?? I would also think the cat is at least half out of the bag, because didn’t Ron Fouchier report the thing at a large conference already?
Letting paranoid folk in one country decide what is in the best interests of world science is NOT a good idea, in my opinion – but as has already been made abundantly clear, the developed world does not much care about our opinion.
So it goes.