Advertisement
Icon WebMD Expert Blogs

WebMD's editorial staff on the latest news from the world of health.

Important:

The opinions expressed in WebMD User-generated content areas like communities, review, ratings, or blogs are solely those of the User, who may or may not have... Expand

The opinions expressed in WebMD User-generated content areas like communities, reviews, ratings, or blogs are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. User-generated content areas are not reviewed by a WebMD physician or any member of the WebMD editorial staff for accuracy, balance, objectivity, or any other reason except for compliance with our Terms and Conditions. Some of these opinions may contain information about treatments or uses of drug products that have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service or treatment.

Do not consider WebMD User-generated content as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read on WebMD. You should always speak with your doctor before you start, stop, or change any prescribed part of your care plan or treatment. WebMD understands that reading individual, real-life experiences can be a helpful resource, but it is never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified health care provider. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or dial 911 immediately.

Hide

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Deathly Virus Made in Lab: Should Recipe Be Published?

By Daniel J. DeNoon

For better or for worse, scientists have taught the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus how to spread among mammals.

At last official count, the virus has killed 322 of the 566 people known to have been infected. There’s only one reason why that number is so low: H5N1 bird flu can’t spread easily from person to person.

But now two groups of scientists have taught the flu bug a new trick. They’ve taught H5N1 to spread among ferrets, the lab animal used in place of humans in flu studies. Flu bugs that spread among humans usually spread among ferrets. Not all flu viruses that spread in ferrets can spread in humans — but this is a big step in that direction.

Ron Fouchier, PhD, of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, led a team that engineered three simple mutations into H5N1. After 10 “passages” in ferrets — that is, 10 rounds of  infecting one ferret with the virus and then infecting another with the virus that grew in that ferret — Fouchier ended up with an H5N1 bug that spread easily from ferret to ferret, all by itself.

“The virus is transmitted as efficiently as seasonal flu,” Fouchier told New Scientist magazine last September.

It took a total of only five simple mutations for the bird flu virus to learn this trick. All of these mutations currently can be found in various H5N1 viruses from birds — just not at the same time. Not yet.  Nature can do  in the wild what scientists can do in the lab. Such viruses already may exist, they just haven’t yet been passed to humans.

At the University of Wisconsin, virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, PhD, DVM, is said to have done the same thing as Fouchier’s team.  Both teams of researchers want to publish their results.

Why? The findings offer crucial information to other scientists about what makes flu bugs deadly, what makes them transmissible, and what might make them vulnerable to vaccines and antiviral drugs.  Of course, it also offers a recipe for making a killer virus for those who have the right education, the right technology, and the wrong motives.

The studies have been submitted to Science magazine, a high-prestige journal. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), has asked Science “to publish only an abbreviated version” of the studies, according to a news release by the journal’s editor in chief, Bruce Alberts.

The NSABB specifically “asked Science to delete details regarding both scientific methodology and specific viral mutations.” That, of course, is the studies’ beating heart. Alberts says the journal will negotiate with NSABB about exactly what information it will omit.

Did the deadly mutant version of bird flu really have to be made? Do the details really have to be made public? And would censoring those details really stop anyone from duplicating this relatively simple experiment? And what if one of those ferrets got loose?

“I can’t think of another pathogenic virus as scary as this one,” NSABB chairman Paul Keim, PhD, told ScienceInsider. “I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”

 

 

Posted by: Daniel DeNoon at 6:02 pm

Comments

Leave a comment

Subscribe & Stay Informed

WebMD Daily

Get your daily dose of healthy living, diet, exercise and health news from WebMD!

Archives

WebMD Health News