Killer-Flu Debate: Should Mutant H5N1 Have Been Created?

chickens, bird flu research, controversy
Controversial new research found a way to make bird flu spread easily among mammals.

News of two separate research projects that altered the bird-flu virus so it could potentially spread between humans has some experts asking: Should this research have been done at all?

Other scientists, however, are defending the projects as important progress in understanding how the virus, called H5N1, could adapt to cause a devastating pandemic.

"I wouldn't do it," said W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. "I think it is one thing to study the pathology of an organism to try to understand ways in which you can reduce the risk to humankind or animals by doing basic research. … This isn't the case [here]; this virus doesn't transmit readily to humans."

Others argue that the two projects addressed questions crucial to averting a global tragedy: Could H5N1 mutate into a form that could spread between humans? And, if so, how? [7 Devastating Infectious Diseases]

"The bottom line is science has been advanced by this, we know something about the virus that we didn't know before," Thomas Daniels, an associate research scientist and co-director of the Vector Ecology Laboratory at Fordham University, told LiveScience. "It could be it's going to be very, very useful down the road, but right now we have to proceed with caution."

An unusual exception

The details of the studies aren't available yet, in fact, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has asked the researcher and the journals considering publishing their work to withhold details that could provide a blueprint for those seeking to do harm.

In science, experiments and their results are shared so others can reproduce them and advance the field, but this case seems to merit special consideration. Half a dozen scientists interviewed for this article supported withholding details, such as the specific genetic changes in the altered viruses.

Bird flu basics

The bird flu is deadly for birds, only rarely infecting humans who catch it directly from the birds. But when people do catch it the results are often deadly –- since November 2003, nearly 600 human infections have been reported globally, and approximately 60 percent of those have been fatal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

One of the two groups to have created a more transmissible form of the virus, led by Ron Fouchier from Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, developed a form of H5N1 that ferrets, which are mammals like us, could catch from one another even though they were not in physical contact. In other words, the infection became airborne, according to reports based on Fouchier's presentation at a meeting in Malta in September.

The other study, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo, also produced a more highly transmissible form of the virus using ferrets, although more details were not available.  

A dangerous undertaking

Publishing the specifics of these projects would be the second mistake; the first was conducting these experiments, write biosecurity experts, led by Thomas Ingelsby, CEO and director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

This work was conducted by internationally respected scientists working under top-of-the-line biosafety conditions, but "the risk of a person accidentally becoming infected and starting an outbreak with this new strain is low. But it is not zero," they write in an editorial published on Dec. 15 in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science.They cite the accidental release of an influence strain from a lab in 1977. [Predicting the Next Major Virus]

The potential benefits, such as screening viruses for similar changes or developing a pandemic-preventing vaccine based on the engineered strain, are uncertain and do not outweigh the risks, they write.

Preparing for a crisis

Others say the work isn't risking catastrophe; it may help prevent one.

"It should not have been done if the final goal is to show you can make a deadly virus," said Dr. Andrea Gambotto, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Medicine, and director of the university's Vector Core Facility. "In this case, the goal is different; the goal is to try to predict what can happen, how a virus can mutate."

Vaccines and antiviral medications effective against H5N1 exist, but these were designed to fight off a virus that has not fully adapted to humans. So, it's not clear how they would fare against a strain that has made the evolutionary jump and can spread among humans as the Fouchier's did among ferrets, he said.

The altered viruses developed by Fouchier's and Kawaoka's research might give researchers a better idea of how to prepare, Gambotto said.

Vaccine developers could test the existing vaccines against the lab strains to get at least some idea of how effective they might be against the mutant virus. If they don't prevent infection, then developers know they'll need something else in order to have a running start, he said.  [How Do Vaccines Work?]

"By the time we start seeing the first people dying, isolate a virus, generate a vaccine, it is probably one year or eight months if everything goes smoothly," he said. "But that eight months can be deadly for humanity."

A wake-up call

The demonstration that bird flu can be coaxed into spreading easily among mammals is a wake-up call to the world that has been tuning out a potential pandemic, Robert Webster, a virologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, told LiveScience.

"The virus has been around for 15 years since it appeared in Hong Kong and it first got a lot of attention, then less, and less. Even though it has [caused] 600 cases in humans and killed about 60 percent of people, people were starting to say this is an aberration, so let's move on to worry about bigger problems," Webster said. "These two papers make it clear this can happen."

In comparison, the flu pandemic of 1918 killed about 2.5 percent of the people it infected.

"People are saying the scientists were irresponsible for doing this; it was not an irresponsible thing to do," Webster said. "These scientists are the leading scientists in the world in influenza and they made a huge contribution."

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.