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Modified H5N1 Virus Stirs Debate

Rachelle Dragani

Dutch researchers have made the deadly influenza virus more easily transmissible between ferrets. Now the scientific community is debating whether it’s responsible to publish such studies.  

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A submitted paper that describes a modified strain of the avian H5N1 virus has the scientific community discussing the dangers of publishing science that could be used for bioterrorism.

In the paper submitted to Science, Dutch scientist Ronald Fouchier and his team at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands report that by transferring a strain of H5N1 from ferret to ferret, the virus evolves to adapt to each host. The virus’ normal mechanism for transmission is via bodily secretions, but Fouchier and colleagues found that the virus became capable of airborne transmission after only 10 generations in the experiment.

Dutch researchers have made the deadly influenza virus more easily transmissible between ferrets. Source: Flickr, USFWS Mountain Prairie

Because ferrets and humans share a similar immunity to the H5N1 virus, some are concerned that the strain could be just as contagious among humans as the common flu. While the common flu is relatively harmless to otherwise healthy people, it still kills thousands each year so a H5N1 strain capable of airborne transmission has the potential to be much more deadly. Wild H5N1 strains currently aren’t easily transmissible among people; most cases occur from contact with infected birds.

“There’s not a threat from this research necessarily, but the threat from bioterrorism is real. The risk is real,” said biosecurity expert Barry Kellman from DePaul University.

Because this research could possibly be used as a biological weapon, research regulators and scientists are in a precarious position. While a study detailing the aggressive human transmission of the virus could be crucial for preventative measures in the event of an attack, that same published information could lead to an attack as well.

As a result, a US panel of national security and scientific research experts are reviewing the paper. The National Security Advisory Board on Biosecurity is investigating the paper but isn’t commenting on it at this time. While the group doesn’t have the authority to ban the paper’s publication, its recommendations could discourage some journals from publishing the research.

But while the US has a system in place, there is no international guidelines or review system for responding to research that could potentially have dangerous applications, leaving a vulnerability in biosecurity.

“We’ve gone forward on the basis that all the really cutting-edge research is done in the US, and therefore if we have controls that’s sufficient, but that’s nonsense. This research is happening all over the world and if we don’t think about these problems we might be building a dam out of a sieve,” said Kellman.

When the NSABB will make their recommendation or when Science will make its decision on publication remain unknown. Fouchier hasn’t made any comments about what he will do if the paper is rejected and has not responded to requests for comments.

“We need to think as a policy matter how we’re going to deal with this. We have domestically, but we haven’t globally, and here’s the proof of the inadequacy of that approach,” said Kellman.

Keywords:  bioterrorism H5N1