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Deadly Airborne Bird Flu Virus Research Raises Bioterror Fears

Posted on the 15 February 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
Deadly airborne bird flu virus research raises bioterror fears

Bird flu: Risk of pandemic?

Research into the bird flu virus is on hold after a row about whether or not scientists should release studies that show how to make H5N1 infectious through airborne transmission. Experts are due to fly into Geneva to discuss the issue, after US biosecurity officals asked science journals not to publish the studies.

Currently, bird flu is only transmissible via close contact with infected birds. “However, the new research demonstrated that the virus could be mutated, through genetic manipulation and other methods, into a form that was transmitted between ferrets in airborne droplets from coughs and sneezes,” reported Nick Miller for The Guardian.

So is this a case of censorship or a reasonable attempt to protect the public from bio-terrorism and lethal accidental outbreaks?

Lab safety issues. “Labs whose experiments on dangerous pathogens are funded by the U.S. government must follow specific rules to keep the microbes from escaping, but those rules are not enforceable for researchers working with private funds,” reported Sharon Begley and Julie Steenhuysen for Reuters. What’s more, controls for labs in other countries vary considerably. “Deadly microbes have escaped high-security labs. Between 1978 and 1999, just over 1,200 people acquired infections from BSL-4 labs around the world; 22 were fatal,” said Begley and Steenhuysen.

“There are many scenarios to consider, ranging from mad lone scientists, desperate despots and members of millennial doomsday cults, to nation states wanting mutually assured destruction options, bioterrorists or a single person’s random acts of craziness,” said Paul Kleim, chair of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, reported The Guardian.

Research is important. Many scientists “argue that stopping this type of research into flu viruses and other potentially lethal pathogens would set a dangerous precedent”, wrote Damien Gayle in The Daily Mail. The research is  considered vital to understand deadly pathogens so that scientists can develop effective vaccines in case of a pandemic, said Gayle. Besides, terrorists could still create an H5N1 pandemic if they really wanted to, virologist Wendy Barclay told the paper: “It doesn’t matter how much you restrict scientists from doing good, bad people can still do bad things.”

Time for debate, not hyperbole. “I am disturbed that so much coverage of this dispute — so deserving of sober consideration — is fixated on fear mongering,” wrote Leslie Gerwin at The Huffington Post, accusing both sides of using “scare tactics” in an attempt to win the argument. Those who oppose the publication of the research say it could be used by terrorists and warn of potential accidents, while those on the side of the research say they fear for the “suppression of science”. “These are indeed legitimate concerns, but framing the debate in terms of the worst-case scenario does not promote public enlightenment,” said Gerwin.

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