Genetically Altered Avian Flu Experiments Under Review by Biosecurity Board – Major Controversy Brewing

Avian_influenza_A_H5N1_viruses{Rotterdam, The Netherlands}

[UPDATES: Jan. 22, 2012 / Dec. 21, 2011; see below] A genetically altered strain of H5N1 avian influenza A virus (also known as “bird flu”) is under tight security at a medical facility in The Netherlands, pending formal review by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) of a research paper (Fouchier et al) reporting the results of recent animal contagion experiments.

According to reports ahead of publication, the paper details the results of the genetic modification experiments, as well as the fact that, due to this modification, the strain is now “easily transmissible” between ferrets. Ferrets are the ideal animal model for flu studies as their bodies most closely mimic the flu reaction in humans.

The new strain of flu — if it were to be accidentally released — would cause a world-wide influenza pandemic that would likely kill millions, scientist familiar with the project believe.

More Details on the Experiments and Major Concerns

The team of virologists, headed by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, is preparing itself for a mass media storm of criticism, even while Fouchier, in a recent interview, describes the new strain as “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.” [source: Science Insider] Fouchier also wants the paper published.

Enter the NSABB, which handles only a few such ‘biosecurity risk’, scientific papers each year. This paper has become perhaps its highest priority review in years. This emerging story highlights the growing conflict between scientific and security interests over so-called ‘dual use’ research, wherein a laboratory development/breakthrough has both great scientific utility but also a real potential for use in biowarfare or by bioterrorists.

The title of the paper has not been released to the press, but according to a few earlier news items (in the New Scientist and Scientific American) from a September scientific meeting in Malta, sufficient details of how the strain of H5Ni avian flu was created are included in the paper.

How the Strain was Created

The earlier news items explained how Fouchier, after failing to produced the altered strain via a technique called ‘reverse genetics’, finally succeeded after transferring the virus between ferrets for a total of ten generations. This back and forth transference between hosts (whether between similar or differing animals) is the traditional method used to make a pathogen adapt to its host.

In fact, during the course of this serial transference experiment, the virus became ‘airborne’ — able to infect another animal simple because the animal is in proximity to the infected one, without any physical contact. Analysis showed that the new strain possessed five mutations (known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs), in two of its genes. None of these mutations were novel, but their occurring in the same virus at the same time was a first.

Previous Experiments and a Divided Scientific Community

Fouchier’s study is actually one of two recent studies — both involving H5N1 flu — that have stirred up considerable controversy. This second study was conducted by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo. That study also remains under review by the board.

The chair of the NSABB, microbial geneticist Paul Keim, acknowledged that the board was intensely reviewing the paper and would issue a public statement soon. He then added: “I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one. I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.” [source: Science Insider interview]

Professionals working in the biological sciences are divided on this issue, with some believing that the work should never have been undertaken because the risk for accidental escape or nefarious use was too great.

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas ill with Spanish influenza
Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas ill with Spanish influenza (H1N1) at a hospital ward at Camp Funston in 1918, where the worldwide pandemic began (the flu eventually killed 22 million world wide)

But, for others, the work done by Fouchier and Kawaoka are vitally important to answer a key question in flu epidemiology, specifically: does H5N1 have the potential to cause a pandemic? Although lethal to poultry populations, to date, the virus has not been able to trigger a global, human outbreak/contagion due to its inefficient transmission from animals to humans. However, in those cases where humans did contract the disease (about 600 cases since 1997), more than half were fatalities.

Disagreement on Pandemic Potential

Some researchers think that the strain of flu is unable to trigger a pandemic because its adapting to a human host would render its reproductive machinery non-functional. Others assert that some type of genetic reassortment would be necessary before it could successfully reproduce. Further, prior clinical experiments seem to indicate that only the H1, H2, and H3 strains (which have occurred in succession over the years) of the virus can cause pandemics.

But, according to this current research, all it takes to make H5Ni airborne (and thus super contagious) is the occurrence of five mutations in two genes. Fouchier believes that his work proves the prior claims wrong.

Fellow scientists that support this type of research believe that it will motivate new vaccine/treatment research and motivate public health officials to better prepare for an eventual (and inevitable) outbreak.

For more reading on the topic of flu contagion, check out this author’s previous article: How Realistic is the Film ‘Contagion’?.. Expert Weighs in on the Risks

Original reference for this post : Scientists Brace for Media Storm Around Controversial Flu Studies

UPDATE: Dec. 21, 2011 – Virologists Fouchier and Kawaoka (see above) have agreed to redact certain details from their research papers prior to their publication, following a review by the  U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, and due to bioterrorism fears (although these details will remain accessible to other researchers). For more details, read the Science Magazine article Grudgingly, Virologists Agree to Redact Details in Sensitive Flu Papers

UPDATE: Jan. 22, 2012 – 39 influenza researchers announced a 60 day moratorium on H5N1 inter-mammal, transmission studies; check out the Science Magazine article Flu Researcher Ron Fouchier: ‘It’s a Pity That It Has to Come to This’

 Author Note:

To be clear, whether the paper is approved for publication (with edits of sensitive information, no doubt), or not, the altered strain of H5N1 will remain under heavy security so long as it exists.

Top photo: (Colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses) CDC

Second photo: (Fort Riley, Kansas, Camp Funston, Military [Spanish flu] hospital), unknown military photographer

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