Researchers Pause Work on Bird Flu That Could Kill Hundreds of Millions


At its peak in 2006 bird flu was found in 63 countries, most of them in Asia. The Bush Administration was so concerned about the potential threat to humans from an airborne mutation that it contracted labs in the U.S. and overseas to see if such a human-to-human form really could evolve. The Dutch scientists were the first to prove it is possible. A lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has independently created a similar form of the lethal virus.

Since it peaked six years ago, H5N1 bird flu has been eradicated in many countries, but it remains endemic in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Indian, Indonesia and Vietnam. Fouchier says one of the main reasons the U.S. and other Western government were eager to see if the super-virus could be created was to push the countries where bird flu still exists to take the threat seriously.

"The urgency to eradicate bird flu in poultry markets [in those countries] was not very high," says Fouchier, "With these experiments we tell these countries please eradicate this virus very aggressively to prevent a pandemic."

"My first reaction was 'Oh, my God, why did they do this?'" says Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Second reaction was 'Oh dear, it works!' Meaning that nature could do the same thing – that they had proven how dangerous the virus could be. And then my final reaction was 'we have no capacity to control this kind of work. Our treaty systems our policy systems, will not do the job.'"

Garrett wonders whether the science can be justified. "We have a whole legacy now of labs doing experiments that in the wrong hands could be very, very dangerous. I'm not real comfortable with having this virus exist – anywhere."

But when ABC News surveyed virologists in the United State for their opinions on the value of such seemingly toxic science the overwhelming response was that Fouchier's work is a valuable contribution to public health around the world.

"I think it's a very good idea," says Dr. William Schaffner, Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "We need to know more about how it is that influenza viruses that start out often in birds can transfer their capacity to make illness in humans and that essential research is going on in Rotterdam."

Schaffner says if affected countries do not move to eradicate bird flu and public health officials are not prepared for the appearance of a highly lethal airborne strain of the bird flu virus, the consequences could be horrifying. "If we were to have a pandemic caused by this virus in nature, then we are talking about millions of people being ill around the world, hospitals overflowing with sick people, funeral homes not being able to keep up with the deaths. So we need as much scientific information as possible to avert that."

Fouchier is scheduled to publish his findings in the journal "Science." He has agreed to omit key details from the paper so that anyone thinking of replicating the virus will not have access to his blueprint. But he notes, the flu virus is hardly an effective form of bioterrorism. What he did is highly technical, requiring skills and equipment that are not widely available. He says nature produces much more accessible biological menaces on its own, although he is quick say he will not name them.

His bigger concern is that the outcry over his research will shut down an important branch of public health research -- not just for 60 days, but for good.

"If politics were to shut down this type of research then what we should do is lie in the sun until the next pandemic hits and kills us," he says. "That, I think, is not the attitude we should follow. Unless that is what we want we have to do this type of research. Otherwise we will be overwhelmed by Mother Nature terrorizing us in the future."

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