Has Bird Flu Opened Bioterror Box? - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Has Bird Flu Opened Bioterror Box?

USATODAY.COM - It was a public health nightmare: A deadly flu bug spread like wildfire around the world, killing tens of millions of people.

That was nearly a century ago. Fears that the nightmare could return today — perhaps with even more terrifying consequences — have set off a heated debate among scientists and, for the first time, delayed the publication of scientific flu research in two professional journals.

The object of those fears: a threatening new version of the bird flu virus that didn't emerge from nature but was born out of experiments in a lab.

Researchers in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who were trying to determine what genes might mutate and make bird flu attack humans, created a strain that can pass easily among ferrets.

Why should we care that ferrets get the bird flu?  Ferrets are the closest lab animal models to humans for flu vaccine studies. Until now, cases of bird flu passing from infected birds to humans were limited to people — farmworkers usually — who worked closely with the birds. And bird flu almost never passes from person to person.

So creation of a bird flu strain easily transmissible between mammals poses frightening scenarios: What if the strain escaped from the lab and spread among humans? David Nabarro, a World Health Organization expert, estimated that such a pandemic could kill 20 million to 150 million people worldwide.

What if terrorists intent on doing harm learned enough from the published scientific work to reproduce the strain on their own? They could release it to start a pandemic.

The federal National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) reviewed the work, and last month, it requested for the first time ever that two prominent scientific journals, Science and Nature, withhold from the public details of the two potentially dangerous bird flu studies.

Journal editors, sensitive to the security issues, have delayed publication of the studies.

"We have to protect the public by making sure the critical information doesn't get into the hands of those who might misuse it," says Science editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts.

On the other hand, he says, "this knowledge could be essential for speeding the development of new treatments to combat this lethal form of influenza."

Last week, leaders of the two labs involved announced a two-month halt to research on bird flu viruses engineered to pass among mammals, citing "perceived fears" that the microbes may escape from the lab. They called for the World Health Organization to discuss the risks and benefits of their research. click here to read the full story 

 

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