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Dutch Scientists Create a Highly Contagious Airborne Strain of Deadly H5N1 Bird Flu, US Government Fears Outbreak, Pandemic

Posted on the 20 December 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost
Dutch scientists create a highly contagious airborne strain of deadly H5N1 bird flu, US government fears outbreak, pandemic

Avian flu virus. Photo credit: uafcde

A deadly strain of bird flu with the potential to infect and kill millions of people has been created in a laboratory by European scientists. The scientists have indicated their desire to publish full details of how they came up with the highly contagious killer flu. But US government fears that it could fall into the wrong hands and wind up being used as a bio-weapon of mass destruction mean the lab workings remains in the scientists’ lockers. For now.

Although only 600 people have contracted H5N1 (via direct contact with infected poultry), it has killed an alarming 60 percent of those infected. That’s why an airborne ‘super strain’ H5N1 is so feared.

It is a nightmare scenario: a human pandemic caused by the accidental release of a man-made form of the lethal avian influenza virus H5N1. Yet the risk is all too real”, cautioned Declan Butler at Nature.

It’s not just the US government in a fluster. Some scientists are questioning whether the research, which was undertaken by was carried out by a Dutch team of scientists led by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, should ever have been undertaken in a university laboratory, instead of at a military facility, reported Steve Connor of The Independent.

“The fear is that if you create something this deadly and it goes into a global pandemic, the mortality and cost to the world could be massive”, a senior scientific adviser to the US Government told The Independent, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The worst-case scenario here is worse than anything you can imagine.”

The researchers significant ‘achievement’ – if you can call it that – has been to mutate the H5N1 strain of avian influenza so that it can be transmitted easily through the air in coughs and sneezes. Until now, it was thought that H5N1 bird flu could only be transmitted between humans via very close physical contact. The Independent reminded that the research was undertaken with the best will in the world; they believe it will be vital for the development of new vaccines and drugs. Critics insist the scientists have “endangered the world by creating a highly dangerous form of flu which could escape from the laboratory – as well as opening a Pandora’s box for fanatical terrorists wishing to make a bio-weapon.”

Time to redact the details? Connor reported that the details of the study are “so sensitive” that they are being scrutinised by the US Government’s own National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, “which is understood to have advised American officials that key parts of the scientific paper should be redacted to prevent terrorists from using the information to reverse-engineer their own lethal strain of flu virus.”

“We have discovered that this is indeed possible, and more easily than previously thought. In the laboratory, it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol-transmissible virus that can easily be rapidly spread through the air”, Dr Fouchier said. “This process could also take place in a natural setting.

Just how hard is it to engineer a H5N1 super strain? Unfortunately, it seems to be fairly straightforward (providing you are a brainiac virologist). The Rotterdam group have said it took just five mutations in two key genes. And The Independent reported that a second, independent team of researchers led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the universities of Wisconsin and Tokyo is understood to have carried out similar work with similar results, “which has underlined how easy it is to create the super virus with a combination of deliberate mutations and random genetic changes brought about by passing avian flu manually from the nose of one ferret to another.”

Just how scared should we be that it’s going to get out? The mutated virus is stored under lock and key in a basement building in Rotterdam. But The Independent reported that there are no armed guards protecting the basement. If you are a budding terrorist, please forget that you just read that. Declan Butler of Nature did reassure that the lab the mutated virus is being held at does have pretty stringent safety measures – “Such labs require scientists to shower and change clothes when leaving the lab, and include other safety features such as negative air pressure and passing exhaust air through high-efficiency particulate air filters. This should be quite sufficient to provide protection against an accidental release of the virus.”

Is it already too late? Nature polled specialists and found them to be very, very concerned: “’This horse is out of the barn’, said Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and biodefence expert at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, ‘At this point, it is utterly futile to be discussing restricting the publication of this information,’ he adds, pointing out that the results have already been seen by many flu scientists, including referees, and are probably spreading through the flu grapevine faster than a speeding neutrino.” The magazine reported that Fouchier presented his results in September at the annual European Scientific Working Group on Influenza conference in Malta.

Good research, evil results? “The quest for knowledge can be a dangerous thing”, reminded Connor in an opinion piece to accompany his reporting. Connor said that scientists engaged in such “dual use scientific research” are always treading a treacherous path. He acknowledged that Fouchier’s finding “is the sort of knowledge that can help to design better vaccines and anti-viral drugs” but warned that “it can also be used for making weapons of mass destruction.” Connor recommended “not complete censorship, but some kind of redaction of key details that could be critical to terrorists with access to biological research facilities.”

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