Ethan A. Huff,
November 23, 2011
For years, health officials from around the world have been warning that the H5N1 avian flu virus, which is currently not a threat, will one day mutate into a deadly, pandemic strain. But now their predictions — or warnings, depending on how you look at it — could come true, as a European scientist has genetically altered H5N1 to effectively spread between mammals.
NPR reports that Dr. Ron Fouchier from Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands announced at a recent flu conference in Malta that he had discovered a way to make the avian flu virus more contagious. By deliberately modifying the virus’ genes, Dr. Fouchier was able to induce H5N1 transmission between ferrets, which represent the animal model typically used to study flu transmission between humans.
So in case you missed it, a virologist has deliberately altered the deadly H5N1 avian flu virus to become more transmissible between mammals — and he has done so in the name of studying the nature of the virus and, according to NPR, “what it is capable of.” Never mind that in its native state, H5N1 is incapable of doing much at all on a global scale. Now that it has been purposely altered, the virus could eventually have devastating global consequences should it ever be released into the wild.
“It’s just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus,” said Dr. Thomas Inglesby, a bioterrorism expert and director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, concerning the experiment. “And it’s a second bad idea for them to publish how they did it so others can copy it.”
Though Dr. Fouchier has not yet published his findings in a scientific journal, he very well could in the near future. In response to an NPR inquiry as to whether or not he intends to publish the study, Dr. Fouchier allegedly told NPR via email that he refused to comment until a National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity committee decides whether or not to recommend that the study be published.
In defense of publishing sensitive studies of this nature, Lynn Enquist, editor in chief of theJournal of Virology, told NPR that it is necessary in order to “be prepared” for how the virus might evolve and spread.
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This article was posted: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 at 3:51 am