The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has requested that research on mutated forms of the Avian Flu Virus, or H5N1, that could be more transmissible to people, be published without information on how the mutated virus was created. Up to this point H5N1 cannot easily infect from person-to-person. However, it is highly lethal, killing 60% of people infected with it since 1997. Hence, research that involved mutations that increased transmissibility among humans has sparked a crucial international debate.
Scientists state that this type of research—and the ability to share their methods with other researchers worldwide—is imperative to understand how to better detect, prevent, and treat the virus. However, the NSABB argued that the altered strain presented “a grave concern for global biosecurity, biosafety, and public health”. The NSABB worries that the information could also be used for more nefarious purposes—namely, for production of a biological weapon.
Concerns about the potential for use by terrorists, as well as the risk of the virus escaping from the labs and mutating further to spread from person to person, have led the research labs to temporarily halt their work for 60 days. In addition, the NSABB has recommended that planned publications of the research omit some of the more sensitive details.
The research was conducted in two separate labs—one at the University of Wisconsin and the other in the Netherlands, and involved ferrets, which are believed to have similar responses to the flu as humans. The mutated virus showed that it could cause infection from one ferret to another, and in the Netherlands lab, the disease was lethal in at least some of the ferrets. While results in ferrets are not a perfect parallel for how the disease would behave in humans, they can be a good representation.
Clearly, there is a very fine line between research to understand a deadly disease and the risk of unleashing it. As we continue to advance our technology, where this boundary exists will continue to be an ever-pressing debate.