The well-known scientific journal, Nature, has just released a report that had previously been banned from release by the US government under fears of bioterrorism.
The H5N1 virus, better known as bird flu, first came to global attention in 2008 when the avian-borne virus led to a 60% mortality rate in its victims. It is a virus which naturally occurs in wild birds, but does not affect them. However, in domesticated birds such as turkeys and chickens, the mortality rate is often as high as 90%, and can be passed directly to humans that are in close contact with them.
The scientific journal published details of research done by Dutch and American scientists into a mutant hybrid strain of the virus that can pass between birds and humans. The scientists combined isolated strains of bird flu with “swine flu”, which caused a human pandemic in 2009. The new hybrid virus can pass easily between ferrets, a human’s closest medical comparison when it comes to viruses.
The US government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity advisors said that certain parts of the paper put the world at risk from bioterrorists. This then led to a complete ban on the publication of the research. However, even though the research has now been published, there has still been unprecedented backlash about the exposure it has given to the possible manipulation of viruses.
Many people from the non-scientific community are asking why it was even necessary to combine these two strains, but the emphasis has been on the immunisation benefits presented by the research. If this were to happen in the wild, the research carried out in this paper would allow for a swift response with both vaccinations and diagnosis. The aim of the research was never to highlight the possibilities of bioterrorism, it was to make sure that the world would be ready if this were ever to come into fruition.
The most pressing and possibly most difficult question to answer is whether or not the release of this paper will encourage bioterrorism. Does the US government actually have a reason to be wary?
The Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, home to the Dutch research scientists, has always maintained that they have never feared their results, and they think that the US are being “over cautious”.