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article imageDeadly man-made strain of H5N1 bird flu virus raises controversy

By JohnThomas Didymus     Nov 27, 2011 in Health
A group of scientists are trying to publish a paper on how they created a new flu virus that could wipe out all humanity. The study that produced the virus is the subject of raging controversy, with some scientists saying it should never have been done.
Concern about the threat of the virus is heightened by the realization of the damage it could do if it is accidentally released from the laboratory or it gets into the hands of people who may want to use it for mischievous purposes.
The research study has raised a debate on the limits of scientific freedom, especially in cases of "dual-use research," that is, studies with potential public health benefit but which could also be adapted for mischief, such as bio-warfare.
Daily Mail reports the new deadly virus is the genetically modified version of H5N1 bird flu virus. The new virus, however, is much more infectious than the original H5N1 strain, and if accidentally released could spread across the globe in a short time.
According to Science Insider, the study that led to creation of the virus was an international research project to understand the avian flu virus better.
Virologist Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center, Netherlands, led the team of scientists who discovered that only five mutations to the H5N1 bird flu strain could turn it to a deadly virus that can cause a pandemic. Ron Fouchier and his group conducted tests of virulence of the strain on ferrets, which are often used in influenza research because they have respiratory systems similar to the human.
Another group of virologists working on the same virus at the University of Wisconsin in collaboration with others at the University of Tokyo arrived at result similar to Fouchier's.
The international effort really was designed to answer a question that has caused flu virus experts sleepless nights: Has H5N1 any potential to trigger a pandemic? The question came up after the virus decimated poultry flocks on three continents but caused only a few deaths among humans. Some scientists had argued that the virus is unable to trigger a pandemic because adapting to a human host will affect its ability to reproduce. Fouchier now says the result of their study has shown that the opinion that H5N1 cannot cause a pandemic is wrong.
When some of Fouchier's colleagues heard of the work, a debate arose whether such research work should have been done in the first place. According to Science Insider, Richard Ebright, Molecular biologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersy, said the work should never have been done. He said:
"The creation of a pandemic virus has been the classical example of dual-use research concern the past decade...It's remarkable that the NSABB is discussing it in 2011."
Fouchier defends himself, saying that he consulted widely before submitting his paper. But his critics counter, saying he consulted too late because by the time he was consulting his study had already been done and the dangerous virus had already been created.
According to Mark Wheelis of the University of California, Fouchier's work is a good example of, "the need for a robust and independent system of PRIOR review and approval of potentially dangerous experiments...Blocking publication may provide some small increment of safety, but it will be very modest compared to the benefits of not doing the work in the first place."
According to Daily Mail, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is reviewing the papers written by Fouchier's team and the Wisconsin-Tokyo team. NSABB, being an advisory board, is not empowered to stop the scientists from publishing but most other researchers in the field are convinced that the research paper should not be published and that the result should be suppressed altogether.
Chairman of NSABB Paul Keim, according to Science Insider, says the group will issue a statement on the matter very soon and will make recommendations about similar research in the future. Keim said:
"We'll have a lot to say [in our report and recommendations]...I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one...I don't think anthrax is scary at all compared to this."
Paul Kleim agrees that Fouchier's work highlights the need for upfront review of dual-use studies before they begin. Keim said:
"The process of identifying dual use of concern is something that should start at the very first glimmer of an experiment...You shouldn't wait until you have submitted a paper before you decide it's dangerous. Scientists and institutions and funding agencies should be looking at this. The journals and the journals' reviewers should be the last resort."
Science Insider reports, however, that NSABB had advised against mandatory reviews of such studies in 2007 because most countries don't have the necessary formal mechanism to review studies before they start.
In spite of the concerns about the creation of the deadly virus, some experts say the work is of significant application in medicine. According to Michael Osterhol, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota,
"These studies are very important..[the researchers] have the full support of the influenza community...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."
Michael Osterholm says a compromise could be to publish only a part of the entire work with some part reserved only for those who must know. According to Osterholm, caution is essential in the situation because,
"We don't want to give bad guys a road map on how to make bad bugs really bad."
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