Influenza virus research - wikimedia commons

The specter of an H5N1 pandemic keeps research scientists up at night because of the virus’ power to kill,” warns Science Insider. “Of the known cases so far, more than half were fatal.”  And one scientist has made an airborne H5N1 influenza virus that has that power, according to a recent article at Kurzweilai.net.

Virologist Dr. Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam,  has produced research that describes his discovery and  presented his study during a meeting in Malta this past September.  The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) can recommend the paper not be published but doesn’t have the authority to actually prevent publication.  It does create potential problems, as scientists have worried for some time about the development of a virus that could kill millions.

Scientists have been particularly concerned that a destructive virus could be developed and that research might fall into the hands of terrorists that could use it to create a widespread panemic.  For that reason some of these same scientists who publish in scientific journals are concerned enough not to want to provide the kind of technical information that could be misappropriated and used by  terrorists.   At a workshop in 2003 a number of authors asked the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) for permission to withhold critical information in their research because of the risks involved.

Michael Kurilla, who is the director of the Office of Biodefense Research Affairs of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, expresses concerns about the potential threat from synthetic biology.  He worries that research like the one conducted by Foucher and his colleagues might fall into the hands of terrorists.  He says “The threat and the reality of synthetic biology is becoming greater and greater every day.” Scientists have recommended carefully guarding specific details in the formulation of dangerous viruses for that reason for many years, back to the time of Ronald Reagan when these issues were discussed.  At the time President Reagan was concerned about keeping the balance between transparency in research on the one hand and the safety of the United States on the other.  The impetus for developing a virus through synthetic biology comes from the need to having an anecdote in the event of a biological threat.

The threat of biological weapons is particularly acute in East Africa, according to Indiana Senator Richard Lugar.   Al Qaeda is known to be trying to find the ingredients and instructions for making biological weapons at a time when many of the nations are weak from economic problems and internal turmoil caused by violent clashes among antagonistic groups.  The problems of maintaining safety in the midst of all this combined with the fact that the details for making an ultimate weapon for bioterrorism are available poses serious risks raised by the scientific community and the politicians who have focused on the challenge. It’s a “potentially disastrous predicament,” says Lugar.

 

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