One of the big doomsday scenarios of the past couple of decades has been an H5N1 avian influenza pandemic. Human infections with this virus have occurred in various parts of the world (mainly southeast Asia) and death rates are quite scarey (50% or higher). Fortunately, the virus does not transmit efficiently between people, so human cases are linked to contact with infected birds or very close contact with infected people, and the current form of the virus is unlikely to have a wide impact on people. The concern is that if this virus changes to become readily transmissible between people, like common human influenza viruses, then a pandemic similar to the devastating Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 could occur (see image).

This raises the question: Should researchers be tinkering with H5N1 to see what mutations make it more transmissible? Those in favour want to understand more about the virus and what has to happen for it to become more infectious, but obviously there are considerable risks involved and others think this is playing with fire. This debate has reached full swing following a report by a Dutch researcher at the 2011 ESWI Influenza conference describing lab-induced mutation of avian influenza virus to make it highly contagious between ferrets. Ferrets respond similarly to influenza viruses compared to people, so something that spreads quickly between ferrets probably also spreads quickly between people. Therefore, the researchers may have (rather easily, it turns out) already created the ultimate "superbug."

So, is this good or bad?

The good

  • This type of research provides more insight into avian influenza and gives us more of an idea of what has to happen for the virus to become more transmissible. This may help determine whether there’s a realistic concern of this happening in nature, and also provide more general information about influenza viruses.

The bad

  • Is it responsible to create something like this that could kill millions if it gets out of the lab, either accidentally or maliciously? We have enough serious infectious disease threats already – do we need to be making more?
  • Is publishing information like this just providing a recipe for bioterrorists? Manipulation of microorganisms can be done quite easily by people with some training and equipment. Materials are a lot easier to access than for other potential weapons of mass destruction. Do we want to make it easier by publishing step-by-step instructions?

The research findings haven’t been published, and they are being scrutinized by an independent committee (set up by the US government) that provides advice about situations like this where legitimate research might be used for nefarious purposes. The committee makes non-binding recommendations, but presumably those recommendations would carry a lot of weight if publication is being considered.

This is a complex area. Academic freedom to pursue scientific investigations is very important and has helped modern science advance as quickly as it has. However, it’s hard to determine where the benefits of individual academic freedom are outweighed by the risk to society from information developed in those academic pursuits.

Image: Historical photo of the 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas (where the pandemic began), showing the many patients ill with the flu. (US Army Photographer, 1918)