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H5N1 bird-flu virus: a bioterrorist risk

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
H5N1, bird flu, bioterrorism, virology, influenza, pandemic

WASHINGTON, DC—The bird-flu virus, known as H5N1, can cause severe illness and death. In addition, at the behest of the U.S government, virologists have determined how the virus can mutate into even deadlier strains that are more infectious. The deadlier strains can more readily spread among some mammals, including humans. On December 20, the federal government made the extraordinary move to request that the scientist not reveal the details of their research.

The government’s concern is that, although the research can benefit the public in regard to preventing deadly infections, it could result in bioterrorism if it fell into the wrong hands. "It wasn't an easy decision," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious diseases chief at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funded the original research. The deadly H5N1 strains have been sequestered in high-security laboratories.

Virologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands are currently working on research papers that will be published in the peer-reviewed scientific journals Science and Nature. Their goal is to spread their research to their colleagues so that prevention and control of H5N1 can be enhanced. However, government biosecurity advisers have requested that the virologists limit the material to the general discoveries and withhold crucial details about the viruses that they have developed.

The U.S. and Dutch researchers have stated that, in view of the U.S. government request, they will make modifications to the material. Complicating the issue is that the government has not made specific requests in regard to what should be omitted from the research papers.

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Dr. Bruce Alberts , editor-in chief of Science noted that his journal has urged the U.S. government to develop a system where certain international researchers will be able to get the full genetic recipe for new H5N1strains—particularly in nations such as China and Indonesia where the virus is a major problem. Dr. Alberts explained, “"This is a sort of watershed moment.” He added that he believed that the issue was the first time this kind of secrecy has been requested from legitimate public health research. He is opposed to publishing an abbreviated version of the research unless he can supply legitimate virologists with a method to obtain an unabridged version of the research. He noted, “It's very important to get this information out to all the people around the world who are living with this virus and are working on it.”

Dr. Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of the journal Nature, agrees with Dr. Alberts that the government’s move is unprecedented. He noted, “It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers. He added that his journal is discussing how "appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled."

Dr. Fauci noted that the NIH is has nearly completed a process whereby international public health officials, virologists, and pharmaceutical manufacturers "a legitimate need to know can have access to that information."

Throughout the globe, H5N1 has caused outbreaks in wild birds and poultry. It only occasionally infects humans who have close contact with infected poultry, particularly in parts of Southeast Asia. Over the past decade, it has infected almost 600 individuals; 60% of those succumbed from the disease. Concern exists that it is possible for H5N1 to mutate into a form that can rapidly spread between individuals; thus, resulting in a pandemic.

The two research teams independently re-engineered H5N1 into new strains that can spread easily between ferrets. That mammal is an appropriate animal model because it responds to the influenza virus in a similar manner to that of a human.