Penn Bioterror Expert Explains Why Lab-Altered Bird Flu is So Dangerous

Harvey Rubin has been following closely the creation of a new, more contagious form of H5N1 – the bird flu that’s killed about 400 people worldwide. He studies infectious diseases as part of Penn’s Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response (ISTAR), which was set up after 9/11 to deal with issues of national security.

The normal version of the virus hasn’t yet become the terrifying pandemic some forecast because it doesn’t spread particularly easily from person to person. Most of the victims are thought to have contracted it directly from domestic birds. But now researchers at Ohio State University and the Netherlands have created a new form, mutated deliberately so it spreads easily between ferrets, an experimental animal whose reaction to the disease is thought to mirror our own.

What makes this modified H5N1 particularly dangerous is that in nature, viruses that become more contagious may also lose some of their lethal virulence, said Rubin. But this artificially mutated virus appears to be more virulent and more contagious.

That doesn’t mean scientists shouldn’t have made it, he said. “Knowing how this thing spreads is important science.” And a federal advisory panel known as The National Science Advisory Board for National Security in Bioscience was correct to tell scientific journals not to go public with the details of the creation of this super virus. “I think it’s a mistake to underestimate what a bad guy or a nut case could do,” he said.

Rubin said he advised that same panel back in the mid-1990s over similar concerns were raised over a project that deciphered the genetic sequences of the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed millions of people. They decided to go ahead and publish the sequence, and so far no harm has come of it.

Penn bioethicist Art Caplan also agrees that censorship is justified in this case. He explains is view in this editorial for CNN.

But this new H5N1 knowledge is different, he said. It’s not out of the question a terrorist armed with the details of the research could produce this same virus and unleash an unknown and novel threat upon the world.  

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