To put it in plain English, a virus with the potential to kill up to half the world's population has been made in a lab, genetically altered to become much more contagious. The fight between academics and bioterrorism experts is whether or not to publish the recipe for anyone to replicate the virus, and whether the research should have been done in the first place.
"This shows clearly that H5 can change in a way that allows transmission and still cause severe disease in humans. It's scary," says Peter Doherty, a 1996 Nobel prizewinner for work in viral immunology, in the New Scientist article, "Five easy mutations to make bird flu a lethal pandemic
In the lab, the University of Rotterdam research team gave the H5N1 virus three mutations that were known to adapt bird flu to mammals, which killed ferrets even though the virus did not transmit between them.
The second trial saw the researchers giving the H5N1 to even more ferrets, repeating the process ten times. Up until this time, none of the H5N1 virus had spread … at least until the tenth round. At this time the shedding of the H5N1 virus had spread to ferrets in separate cages, killing them in the process.
Malik Peiris of the University of Hong Kong, a flu virologist, says this means H5N1 transmissible between humans can evolve in birds, where it is circulating already, without needing to spend time in mammals such as pigs.
According to the New Scientist, "Killer flu research to be censored
D. A. Henderson of the University of Pittsburgh, who led the eradication of smallpox, notes that virologists already review and regulate work with smallpox virus. But flu could be a worse threat, and "special measures are warranted".
The Rotterdam research will be published in the journal Science accompanied by explanations about why it was done, and the measures taken to ensure the virus did not escape.
However, the study's lead researcher, Ron Fouchier of the University of Rotterdam, said, ""We will respect the advice and try to publish in censored form. But we still believe the detailed data should be published. We have the moral obligation to share the details with those that need to know."
Fouchier believes it is important that researchers must investigate the threat posed by H5N1 while evolving in the wild, something that far outweighs the harm that hypothetical bioterrorists might do.