News Column

Bird Flu Research Made Public

June 22, 2012

Elizabeth Weise

Six months of scientific debate ended Thursday with the publication of a paper detailing how researchers took a deadly strain of bird flu and made it even more dangerous.

The work, involving the H5N1, or bird flu, virus initially caused a U.S. biosecurity committee to advise for the first time against publishing such research out of concern that terrorists could use the information to create a bioterrorist weapon.

The recommendation drew protests from other scientists, who said describing the work could help other researchers and countries learn how to counter such microbes.

The debate has ended with publication of the research in the journal Science. Bruce Alberts, the journal's editor in chief, says the paper's publication will make the world safer by stimulating "scientists and policymakers to focus on preparing defenses."

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., defended the publication. Each year, seasonal flu kills 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide, and when new variants arise, pandemic flu can kill millions. Making the research available in the scientific literature makes it easier to get the good guys involved, overweighing "the risk of getting the rare bad guy involved," Fauci said.

The controversial paper describes how researchers in the Netherlands took three flu virus mutations from strains that caused worldwide pandemics and introduced them to an H5N1 virus. They tested the mutations in ferrets, which are used in flu research because they respond much as humans do -- and they sneeze, which makes them the perfect animal model for detecting transmission.

After using nose swabs to sequentially spread the infection among 10 ferrets, the virus "had acquired the ability to transmit via aerosol or respiratory droplets between ferrets," says Ron Fouchier, professor of molecular virology at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and senior author of the paper. He believes as few as five mutations might be sufficient to make the H5N1 virus airborne.

Until now, bird flu passing from infected birds to humans was limited typically to farm workers who worked closely with the birds. Bird flu almost never passes from person to person, so the creation of a strain transmissible between mammals raised concerns that it could kill millions should it escape the lab.

The paper underscores that an H5N1 pandemic is possible because the virus can become easily transmissible between mammals and presumably humans, which some had argued couldn't happen, says Eric Toner with the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The crucial issue now is to find out whether the "risk is 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 100 million," says Derek Smith, professor of infectious disease informatics at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Others disagree about publication. "It was really important work that should be done, but I think it should have limited distribution," says Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance. He believes the research broke what was very likely a "natural barrier" limiting transmission between mammals, and he worries that labs worldwide now have the knowledge to replicate it.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012

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