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Studying H5N1 – Risks vs Benefits

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H5N1 – Risks vs Benefits

There is great controversy among scientists these days regarding what level of biosafety is best for studying the new strains of H5N1 flu virus. Researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and the University of Michigan have different opinions regarding the management of these new strains.

According to WHO, H5N1 virus is transmitted mainly among birds and very rare in humans, but when it is transmitted, it proves fatal in 60% of cases. Shortly after the two research teams have created mutations in the H5N1 virus, this has sparked great controversy in the medical world. Many experts believe that research should not be published because the virus could be turned into a biological weapon. Even if these new developed strains are more virulent, scientists say they can help create some better vaccines in case of a potential pandemic. The genetically modified virus could be even more dangerous because it has proven to be highly contagious among ferrets infected. Biosecurity experts, on the other hand, fear that the strains may reach the wrong hands and could trigger a pandemic worse than the Spanish in 1918, which killed about 40 million people.

Influenza virus H5N1

Influenza virus H5N1

The question now focuses on the security level that researchers should adopt in order that, on the one hand, to not endanger human life, and on the other hand, to continue with their research.

Including the  virus in a biosafety level (BSL) has profound implications on the population. The fact that H5N1 avian influenza virus is transmitted to mammals and, moreover,  it s lethal potential  over 50%,  makes some researchers to wonder whether the current level of biosecurity  is appropriate.

U.S. guidelines category includes current H5N1 viruses in BSL 3. BSL 3 is the name given to pathogens that are transmitted through the air and cause lethal diseases, but for which there is treatment available. BSL 4 are those  pathogens for which there is no treatment, and  there are only four laboratories in the U.S. that work with this level of biosecurity. Instead, most laboratories and hospitals are equipped to work in a BSL3 environment.

Adolfo García-Sastre of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, thinks it is exaggerated to consider H5N1 as BSL4 , saying that even if it is contagious, there is  vaccine against this virus and the disease can be treated. In contrast, Michael Imperiale and Michael Hanna of the University of Michigan, believes that H5N1 should  be included in BSL4. Even if this virus is not transmitted from human to human mutations  recently created increased it s virulence. Moreover, the vaccine is not available worldwide and once a pandemic started it would be difficult to control.