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February 20th, 2012

Bird Flu Researchers Balance Science With Bioterrorism Risks


The World Health Organization (WHO) and others are debating what to do about recent research on bird flu in which mutated viruses were exchanged between ferrets. The research could help the search for a vaccine, but could also be used by terrorists to trigger a human flu pandemic.

Bird flu began in Asia but quickly spread to more continents. This poster in Vietnam illustrates the risk associated with bird flu.

WHO experts concluded that the information gathered from two bird flu experiments should remain secret for a while longer to analyze its risks to human populations.

Groups of scientists in the Netherlands and the U.S. created versions of the bird flu which are more transmissible in mammals than what is presently occurring in nature. Some argue that publicizing the methods and results could lead terrorist groups to develop their own strains of viruses and use them against their enemies. Others believe that there is no point in hiding the information since there is no secure way to keep it from the public and since scientists need to be able to study it.

Some critics believe that such experiments should not even take place at all because they could pose a great risk if the germs ever escaped the lab.

What is bird flu?

Avian influenza, which we often refer to as “bird flu,” is a naturally-occurring infectious viral disease that affects birds. Although most of these viruses do not infect humans, some types of bird flu, like the one scientists call “H5N1,” have caused serious infections in humans. Since its re-emergence in 2003 and 2004, this virus has spread from Asia to Europe and Africa, resulting in millions of infections in poultry, several hundred human cases, and around 700 human deaths.  Most deaths were people who had direct contact with infected birds.

Health officials study bird flu to figure out the best way to avoid a pandemic—a deadly virus infection that can affect an entire country or continent.

The last flu pandemic was in Hong Kong in 1968 and killed almost 1 million people. Between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide died as a result of the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. Researchers recently discovered that the 1918 flu virus originated in birds.

Ferrets are used in bird flu research because their response to the disease most closely resembles the human response.

Two very controversial experiments

Last year, scientists in the U.S. and the Netherlands announced they had been able to transform the H5N1 virus into a highly contagious form of the flu that could trigger a human pandemic. They were looking at how the disease works so that they can create a vaccine, treatment and other preventative measures.

The Dutch research team transmitted the virus from one ferret to another and discovered that it only took five mutations to make the virus more deadly. An American research team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Wisconsin achieved similar results when they created two new versions of the bird flu virus that could spread between ferrets in a limited way. Scientists conducted their research on ferrets because ferrets are the best animal predictors of how human bodies would react to the flu.

Biology researchers often publish the methods and results of important studies in prominent science journals like Science or Nature so that other scientists may build on their work and learn from it. However, due to safety concerns having to do with bioterrorism, influenza researchers around the world declared a 60-day moratorium, or waiting period, on publishing any “research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses.”

What’s the risk?

If a person comes into contact with the H5N1 virus, perhaps through exposure to contaminated chickens, the virus can cause a high fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, chest pain, and bleeding from the nose and gums. Antiviral drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza, which do not cure influenza, can help reduce the number of deaths, but scientists would rather come up with a vaccine to avoid infection.

The WHO believes the H5N1 virus has pandemic potential, but there is much debate over how dangerous bird flu is to humans, as the strain of the virus that occurs naturally does not tend to be easily transmittable from one person to another.

The World Health Organization plans to meet again in the future in order to establish guidelines that dictate how this kind of sensitive research should be conducted and how the results they find should be shared in order to address the public’s fears and the needs of the scientific community.

–Compiled by Maria Conde for NewsHour Extra

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