Bird flu mutation sparks fears of deadly pandemic
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Bird flu has infected 600 people. Photo: ReutersA GROUP of US scientists warns that current research runs the risk of releasing a virus that could kill half the world's population.
At a public meeting at the New York Academy of Sciences on Thursday night, some of the country's leading virus experts debated the censorship of research into bird flu.
Scientists are observing a 60-day moratorium on research into the virus, after two groups found a way to make it infectious by airborne transmission.
Advertisement: Story continues belowAn outbreak of this virus could be worse than the 1918 Spanish flu that killed tens of millions of people, warned Professor Michael Osterholm, who has led research into previous dangerous outbreaks.
"Frankly, I don't want a virus out there that, even if it was 20 times less lethal, would still be the worst influenza pandemic in history," he said.
Professor Osterholm is a member of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which in December asked the journals Science and Nature not to publish the full research on the virus.
Bird flu, or H5N1, has infected 600 people on official figures, mostly in south-east Asia, and killed more than half of those - though it is believed the true fatality rate is less as some may have caught the virus but not been hospitalised.
It can currently only be caught by close exposure to infected birds.
However, the new research demonstrated that the virus could be mutated, through genetic manipulation and other methods, into a form that was transmitted between ferrets in airborne droplets from coughs and sneezes. Ferrets are considered a good model for human-to-human virus transmission. The NSABB said this posed a big risk to the world.
Professor Osterholm said one of the researchers, when he described his work at a conference, said he had done "something really, really stupid" in mutating the virus, describing it as a "very, very dangerous virus".
"I wouldn't like to see smallpox get out of the lab, but if it did it wouldn't overly concern me," Professor Osterholm said. "We could contain it. The same thing is true with SARS. But influenza would scare the hell out of me, because it is the most notorious, the 'Lion King' of transmission."
Professor Arturo Casadevall, from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, was also on the NSABB board and said he had originally been against restricting research, but had been persuaded it was necessary.
"If it is the worst-case scenario half the people you know will die, and half the people you don't know will die," he said.
Professor Peter Palese, from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said the moratorium on research should end.
"All evidence we have now suggests H5N1 isn't easily transmitted to humans, and these experiments don't make it more likely," he said. "When do you stop being afraid?"
Experts from around the world will meet in Geneva this month for World Health Organisation talks to assess the bird flu virus research.