SCIENCE IN THE NEWS DAILY
How Two Mutant Strains of Bird Flu Led to an International Controversy
from the Guardian (UK)
One Monday morning in September last year, Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus medical centre in Rotterdam, stood at the Intercontinental hotel in Malta and told an audience of scientists how he created one of the world's most dangerous viruses.
In a secure laboratory built to contain harmful pathogens, Fouchier took the H5N1 bird flu virus and mutated it, through some worryingly simple steps, into an airborne strain that spread swiftly among ferrets in neighbouring cages. At first glance, the work might seem bad news for ferrets and little more. But the animals are the best mimic we have for how the virus could infect people, for example, through coughs and sneezes.
The work went largely unnoticed until December, when the US government's biosecurity watchdog raised the alarm. Though bird flu, as the name suggests, is mostly an avian disease, it has killed more than half the people known to be infected. The only reason it has not become a global killer is that it does not spread easily from person to person. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) declared a paper Fouchier had sent them--and the US journal Science--too dangerous to publish. The board called for key sections of the report to be deleted, to prevent the recipe for the virus falling into the hands of bioterrorists.
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