Virus research resumed after security controversy

Xavier Symons
13 Feb 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Research into airborne strains of avian flu virus has recommenced, following a year and a half of international controversy and bioethical debate. Virologist Dr Ron Fouchier and his research team at the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands removed specimens of the virus from storage late last month.

Last year Dr Fouchier came under intense pressure from the US government and the media when it became obvious that the ability to turn a slowly-spreading virus into an airborne one - as in movies like Contagion and Outbreak - could be a boon for bioterrorists. As a result, he stopped work on the virus until the political issues could be resolved.

Dr Fouchier's study in Nature described how to create an airborne mutation of the H5N1 virus - a strain of animal flu. It was initially suppressed by a US government agency, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. The NSABB feared that the study could be used by bioterrorists to create a pandemic. It was only published after an outcry from the scientific community and after Dr Fouchier made it clear that his airborne strain was not lethal. Infected ferrets used in the study did not die.

Far from being a tool for terrorists, this research is vital for fighting a potential H5N1 pandemic, says Dr Fouchier: "This is really what is so critical about our research; not the fact that we just made one virus that's airborne. We now (have) much more insight into how flu viruses in general become airborne."

Critics of Fouchier's research believe that it has no clear purpose and could be extremely dangerous. "Learning about that one pathway produces no useful or actionable information," said Richard Ebright, a chemistry and chemical biology professor at Rutgers University. "It makes no sense to invest scarce resources in research that does not have a path to clear application - and carries large risks."