January 20, 2012

Research on mutant strain of bird flu comes to a stop

Scientists who created a more transmissible strain of the avian flu H1N1 have temporarily stopped their research amid fears it could be used by bioterrorists. From the BBC:
In a letter published in Science and Nature, the teams call for an "international forum" to debate the risks and value of the studies. US authorities last month asked the authors of the research to redact key details in forthcoming publications. A government advisory panel suggested the data could be used by terrorists. Biosecurity experts fear a mutant form of the virus could spark a pandemic deadlier than the 1918-19 Spanish flu outbreak that killed up to 40 million people.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended key details be omitted from publication of the research, which an sparked international furore.

"I would have preferred if this hadn't caused so much controversy, but it has happened and we can't change that," Ron Fouchier, a researcher from Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, told Science Insider.

"So I think it's the right step to make."

While bird flu is deadly, its reach has been limited because it is not transmissible between humans.

However, the H5N1 flu virus was altered to be passed easily between ferrets, during the joint research by Erasmus University in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US. A senior US health official says "not everyone needs to know how to make a lethal virus."

Two scientific journals want to publish the research - albeit in redacted form - and are trying to work out with the US government how to make the data accessible to "responsible scientists".

The World Health Organization said in a December statement that limiting access to the research would harm an agreement between its members. The NSABB is made up of scientists and public health experts, 23 from outside the government, and 18 from within.
My two cents:
  • This is probably a good idea. Eventually, once an accountable and effective regulatory regime is put into place, this important research can continue. It doesn't make sense to make this information public. The only people who should have access to it are those who work in sanctioned/licensed labs, and under the watchful eye of this pending regulatory regime. 
  • Now that we know how easy it is to mutate this virus into something far worse (all it took was two very particular genetic tweaks), we have to operate under the assumption that the virus will either mutate that way on its own or that someone will eventually and deliberately re-create this deadly strain for nefarious purposes. Consequently, it is imperative that research be done now to determine how to best combat such a virus. No "hindsight is 20/20" excuse will be allowed on this one; we know today that work needs to be done.

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