Dutch Researcher Created A Super-Influenza Virus With The Potential To Kill Millions
A Dutch researcher has created a virus with the potential to kill half of the planet’s population. Now, researchers and experts in bioterrorism debate whether it is a good idea to publish the virus creation “recipe”. However, several voices argue that such research should have not happened in the first place.
The virus is a strain of avian influenza H5N1 genetically modified to be extremely contagious. It was created by researcher Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center Rotterdam, Netherlands. The work was first presented at a conference dedicated to influenza, that took place in September in Malta.
Avian influenza emerged in Asia about 10 years ago. Since then there were fewer than 600 infection cases reported in humans. On the other hand, Fouchier’s genetically modified strain is extremely contagious and dangerous, killing about 50% of infected patients. The former strain did not represent a global threat, as transmission from human to human is rare. Or, at least, it was before Fouchier genetically modified it.
Fouchier and his team used a pair of ferrets for testing because they react in similar ways as humans, when exposed to the flu virus. Researchers transmitted the deadly virus from one ferret to another, in order to make the virus more adaptable to a new host. After 10 generations, the virus has mutated allowing it to spread through air. The result was that ferrets could get sick just being near another infected animal.
A genetic study showed that new virus strain presented five mutations, and all could be also observed in nature – but only separately, not all five combined. Fouchier’s strain is as contagious as seasonal human influenza, which kills tens of thousands of people, just that, much more lethal.
“I can not think of a pathogenic organism more dangerous than this one”, commented Paul Keim, a specialist in microbial genetics who worked for many years with the anthrax bacillus. “I think the anthrax is not at all scary, when compared with this virus” , he added.
Keim is the coordinator of the U.S. National Committee dedicated to biosecurity issues and now he has to make a decision. If Fouchier wants to publish his study detailing how the virus was created, Keim’s and his committee must approve.
Many scientists are concerned about possible negative consequences that could precede the publication of this research. There are many fears regarding bioterrorists that might find useful tips or a whole ‘recipe’ to plan biological attacks. Demands are beeing made for the establishment of an international institution to oversee such dangerous research projects.
“It’s just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus. And it’s a second bad idea for them to publish how they did it so others can copy it,” believes Dr. Thomas Inglesby, a bioterrorism expert
On the other hand, if the study becomes available for the scientific community, it could allow researchers to “be prepared” for a potential H5N1 pandemic. Since Fouchier’s study suggests that the risk for this to occur is greater than previously thought. Some researchers believe that banning the paper will leave mankind helpless if the virus naturally mutates and becomes contagious.