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Engineering a Deadly Flu

Research on the H5N1 influenza strain has gained the attention of a national biosecurity organization.

By | November 21, 2011

Avian flu virus through a scanning electron microscopeFLICKR, UAFCDE

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is investigating a research group that succeeded in making the avian influenza (H5N1) highly contagious in the lab, according to a post on NPR’s health blog. The researchers, led by virologist Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, induced five mutations that rendered the virus highly contagious among ferrets. They presented their findings in September at the European Scientific Working group on Influenza conference held in Malta.

But as was raised in an opinion article on The Scientist’s website just last week, such research is not without serious ethical concerns. Indeed, although the research hasn’t been published, some scientists are worried that such sensitive knowledge could fall into the wrong hands, such as those looking to build biological weapons. "It's just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus,” Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told NPR. “And it's a second bad idea for them to publish how they did it so others can copy it." Both the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refuse to comment until the Biosecurity Board’s investigation is complete.

Stay tuned for our upcoming Biobusiness feature article on preparing for potential biological attacks, publishing in our November/December issue next week.

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