Engineered “Doomsday Virus”?

By Camilo Pardo, Features Staff Writer

A heated debate persists over two unpublished scientific studies detailing the creation of an easily transmissible “bird flu” virus capable of initiating a worldwide pandemic. The story first made headlines at an international influenza conference in Sept. 2011 when scientists from Erasmus University, in the Netherlands, reportedly engineered a deadly strain of H5N1 (the scientific term for the avian influenza or “bird flu” virus).

Ron Fouchier, the leading Dutch scientist who helped engineer the strain, said, “this virus is airborne and as efficiently transmitted as the seasonal virus” in an interview with the Influenza Times. His team used ferrets as subjects for the project, as these animals respond to influenza in a similar manner to humans. In contrast to the first avian influenza virus reported back in 1997, this strain of engineered H5N1 has the capability to spread through aerosols, meaning that a mere cough or sneeze could infect a person. The virus’ incredible virulence has led the New York Times to label it the “Doomsday Virus.”

Initially, work on H5N1 was a project funded by the US government to help study how mutations of the virus could make it more readily transmissible between humans.  This, in turn, could help direct research on defensive measures against any possible future outbreaks of the bird flu virus. Yet after reports of the Dutch scientists’ findings were reviewed by select scientific groups, a government advisory panel called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) requested that information regarding the “experimental details and mutation data that would enable replication of the experiments” be left out of the reports. NSABB cited biosecurity issues and the virulence of the strain as reasons for censoring the papers. They claim that this lethal virus could represent a worldwide threat if the instructions on how to engineer it fell into the hands of bioterrorists. In addition, the virus’ extreme harmfulness and easy transmission could lead to a pandemic with a magnitude only seen in science fiction movies, if released.

The Dutch scientists reluctantly agreed to redact the experimental details at first, but along with many other scientists; they have cited censorship issues against NSABB in the name of science. The scientists warned that censoring the results in the papers would make it extremely difficult to combat any outbreak of a similar strain. This has led to a two-month moratorium moderated by the World Health Organization (WHO), in which they concluded that the results should be published in full eventually. Fouchier and his team defended themselves in this recent meeting, explaining “the threat has been blown out of proportion. The virus made in the lab does not kill ferrets infected by the aerosol route. And it is more difficult to transmit the virus than previously described.”

These statements directly contrast the claims made by Fouchier in his September presentation, but the focus of the moratorium has been to clarify the results of the study and whether or not full publication should be allowed. The controversy over the virus research has led to many questions surrounding the topic of censorship in science. Although the results remain confidential, the debate has become a matter of global health, and whether or not the benefits of research would outweigh the costs. On one side, scientists claim the findings would be helpful in monitoring virus samples from animals, and also designing new drugs and vaccines that would be effective against the virus. On the other hand, NSABB and the media fear that the risks associated with the release of the virus could be fatal to humanity.

While at its philosophical roots, the debate comes down to issues of censorship and innovation; the more practical surface reveals that the priority of global health and safety must be taken into account. These contrasting perspectives only prove the complex nature of the debate and make one thing certain—only full participation by scientific groups, the government, and the public will facilitate a healthy discussion about this public health matter. As representatives of humanity, it is our responsibility to set aside bias and judgment in order to objectively determine the worth of fully publishing these scientific studies.

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