Five tweaks is all it took for a team of virologists at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands to genetically modify the H5N1 virus -- commonly known as bird flu -- and make it something some have said should not have been created while others advocate its importance in transmissibility studies.
According to Science Magazine's Science Insider, Ron Fouchier genetically modified H5N1 to be easily transmissible to ferrets, which are an animal that react in a similar fashion to humans with regard to the flu. Science Insider reports that a separated study conducted by virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo with H5N1 achieved similar results in terms of transmissibility of the genetically altered virus.
Science Insider has more:
Both studies have been submitted for publication, and both are currently under review by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which on a few previous occasions has been asked by scientists or journals to review papers that caused worries.
NSABB chair Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist, says he cannot discuss specific studies but confirms that the board has "worked very hard and very intensely for several weeks on studies about H5N1 transmissibility in mammals." The group plans to issue a public statement soon, says Keim, and is likely to issue additional recommendations about this type of research. "We'll have a lot to say," he says.
"I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one," adds Keim, who has worked on anthrax for many years. "I don't think anthrax is scary at all compared to this."
Some scientists say that's reason enough not to do such research. The virus could escape from the lab, or bioterrorists or rogue nations could use the published results to fashion a bioweapon with the potential for mass destruction, they say. "This work should never have been done," says Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute who has a strong interest in biosecurity issues.
Aside from a potential outbreak from the lab where the genetically modified virus is kept, Ebright is expressing his reserve over what's called dual use research, or research that is meant to help the public, but could also be used against it. Here's a video dialogue about dual use research from NSABB:
The point of both studies, according to Science Insider, was to see if this disease could ever have pandemic potential, which means it would need to be passable from human to human. In its current form H5N1 is not generally passed from human to human but from birds to humans. It is the flu that, according to Daily Mail, killed more than 500 people since 2004.
New Scientist reports that Fouchier recently presented his results at a scientific meeting about the flu, and here's what the researchers did to modify the virus:
They first gave H5N1 three mutations known to adapt bird flu to mammals. This version of the virus killed ferrets, which react to flu viruses in a similar way to humans. The virus did not transmit between them, though.
Then the researchers gave the virus from the sick ferrets to more ferrets -- a standard technique for making pathogens adapt to an animal. They repeated this 10 times, using stringent containment. The tenth round of ferrets shed an H5N1 strain that spread to ferrets in separate cages -- and killed them.
The process yielded viruses with many new mutations, but two were in all of them. Those plus the three added deliberately "suggest that as few as five are required to make the virus airborne", says Fouchier. He will now test H5N1 made with only those five.
All the mutations have been seen separately in H5N1 from birds. "If they occur separately, they can occur together," says Fouchier. Malik Peiris of the University of Hong Kong, a flu virologist, says this means H5N1 transmissible between humans can evolve in birds, where it is circulating already, without needing to spend time in mammals such as pigs.
Some scientists such as Peter Palese, a flu specialist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, New Scientist reports, have said they don't think the virus would be able to mutate to be able to be passed from human to human, and therefore reach pandemic proportions. But others have said just because it hasn't mutated to that point yet, doesn't mean it won't.
Science Insider reports that the U.S. National Institute of Health funded this research. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the Food and Drug Administration already has a vaccine that could protect humans from this flu, especially in the event of it beginning to spread between humans.
Science Insider reports that the U.S. National Institute of Health funded this research and states that Fouchier expects "a media storm" to result once NSABB issues its statement and the papers are officially published.