The Risks of Dangerous Research: Fears Grow Over Lab-Bred Flu
“I don’t like to scare people,” says microbiologist Paul Keim. “But the worst-case scenarios here are just enormous.”
Keim, who chairs the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), is reflecting on its unprecedented recommendation to censor two scientific papers describing how to make a more transmissible form of the H5N1 avian flu virus. On 20 December, the board said that although the general conclusions could be published, the papers (currently under review at Nature and Science) should not include “the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm”.
…But the stakes are higher for the H5N1 work, because the altered viruses readily spread between laboratory ferrets breathing the same air. If the same were true in humans, the new strains could combine H5N1’s high death rate —much higher than the 1918 flu [fatality rate of about 59% in confirmed cases]— with seasonal flu’s rapid transmission. Add in uncertainties about the efficacy and availability of vaccines and drugs to combat the virus, and the risk of misuse becomes more frightening than any other case that the board has considered, says NSABB member Kenneth Berns, a microbiologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.