In his Netherlands laboratory, virologist Ron Fouchier recently experimented with spreading the avian flu virus among ferrets. Ten generations later, the deadly flu has mutated into an airborne strain that could kill half the human population.
Fouchier, who conducted his research at Erasmus Medical Centre admits that the new strain is "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make". He presented his work at the influenza conference in Malta in September. He wants to go a step further and publish his study in a scientific journal, so those responsible for responding to bioterrorism can be prepared for the worst case scenario. But the research has set off alarms among colleagues who are urging Fouchier not to publish, for fear the recipe could wind up in the wrong hands. Some question whether the research should have been done in the first place.
Typically H5N1 affects birds, but about 10 years ago it emerged in humans, first in Asia, then travelling around the world. Human cases are rare — about 600 total — but they are deadly, killing about half the people infected.
The reason avian flu isn't more common is because it's not an airborne contagion — at least it hasn't been until now. With the un-engineered version, you have to touch something that's been contaminated to get sick. But Fouchier's version is airborne, meaning being in the vicinity of the disease and breathing it in would be enough to get it. It's as contagious as the human seasonal flu, but much more deadly. And now Fouchier wants to publish how he made it that way.
His fellow bioterrorism experts are thinking that's maybe not the best idea, because then anyone who got their hands on the paper could reproduce Fouchier's results. Microbial geneticist Paul Keim, an anthrax expert and chair of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (which will decide whether Fouchier can publish) told Science Insider:
I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one. I don't think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.
But Fouchier and a handful of other scientists who have performed similar experiments believe publishing would help the scientific community prepare for an H5N1 pandemic. Not publishing, they say, could leave researchers in the dark as to how to respond to an outbreak. But a pandemic made possible in the first place by the publication creates a bit of a chicken and egg question — and that's why the NSAB has an unenviably difficult decision to make.