Flu virus (CDC image)
A virologist, has created an avian flu virus that’s easily transmissible between ferrets–which means it’s probably easily transmissible between people–unlike other strains of the H5N1 virus. His method was relatively low-tech, which means it might be available to another researcher who could hold the world hostage. Now he wants to publish. Mother Jones has the story.
Fouchier hopes to publish the results of experiments that many scientists believe should never have been done in the first place. He and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin who is reportedly seeking to publish a similar study, have long pursued this line of research, hoping to determine whether H5N1 has the potential to become infectious in people, a jump that could trigger a worldwide pandemic. Knowing the specific genetic mutations that make the virus transmissible, Fouchier told Science, will help researchers respond quickly if this sort of killer virus were to emerge in nature.
Fouchier admits that his creation “is probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.”
This type of research is euphemistically known as “dual-use,” which means it could be used for good or evil.
… Some scientists think any work this dangerous should be vetted by an international panel; others reject the notion.
But such decisions, then and now, have been left largely in the hands of the researchers. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, an NIH advisory panel, is currently reviewing the Fouchier and Kawaoka papers, according to Science. But in 2007, the board recommended against mandating prior reviews of dual-use research. Instead, it suggested that scientists alert their institutional review boards to any experiments of concern—something they were supposed to be doing already. Keim, who sits on the NSABB, told Science that any potential risks should be flagged at “the very first glimmer of an experiment…You shouldn’t wait until you have submitted a paper before you decide it’s dangerous.”