It is the stuff of science fiction: scientists tamper with a killer bird flu virus and create something much worse. But what has been created in a Rotterdam laboratory is not fiction. It is deadly real.
So deadly that the U.S. government – which funded the Rotterdam research – asked scientists to omit key details of their research when they are published to keep the formula out of the hands of bio-terrorists. And today, researchers announced a self-imposed 60-day "voluntary pause" on any research involving highly transmissible form of bird flu that they have created.
The researchers are responding to the worldwide furor that erupted after word of their work became public. There are serious public health reasons for the research and they want to lower the temperature of the discussion while they explain what they have done and why they have done it.
The lead author of today's announcement is Dr. Ron Fouchier, a respected molecular virologist. He heads at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, that engineered a form of "aerosolized" bird flu that can easily be passed from humans to humans through the air. The genetically-altered flu is thought to be so virulent that if the vials containing it were to get out, the virus would have the potential to spread around the globe and kill hundreds of millions.
Bird flu, also known as H5N1, first surfaced 15 years ago. It has not caused mass panic because it is only transmitted to humans who have direct contact with infected birds. But when humans do contract bird flu, they are likely to die.
According to the World Health Organization of 573 confirmed bird flu cases in humans since 2003, 336 people have died. That's a staggering 60 percent mortality rate. Nothing in history comes close to that.
ABC News was given an exclusive inside look at some of the testing facilities the Rotterdam researchers used. With Fouchier as our guide, we donned protective clothing and face masks and passed through three levels of security to see the ferrets he uses for testing.
Watch Jeffrey Kofman's exclusive report from inside the testing facilities tonight on "World News with Diane Sawyer," at 6:30 p.m. ET
Fouchier explained how his lab assistants exposed the ferrets to the altered virus and placed unexposed ferrets in cages nearby. All 40 ferrets died. Scientists use ferrets because they have a respiratory system much like humans, which is why the researchers believe the consequences of an airborne bird flu would be just as deadly for humans.
No visitors, however, allowed in the high secret lab at Erasmus Medical Centre where the actual experiment took place. He told us that with U.S. and Dutch expertise Erasmus spent eight years and millions of dollars building one of the most secure lab facilities in the world just for studying H5N1. They call it a BSL3 Enhanced lab – that's Bio-Safety Level 3. The vials of enhanced bird flu are kept in a bank vault inside the lab. The lab is designed to keep the deadly virus in and intruders out.
The researchers who engineered this super-virus insist they are far from being "mad scientists" as some have suggested. They are public health specialists.
The man in charge, Fouchier is a tall, lanky molecular biologist who began his career studying HIV in Philadelphia, but switched to bird flu when the mysterious virus first surfaced in 1997.
"What scares me is that this can happen so easily," he says, "it's scary that it might actually happen in the field."
And that's the point behind research that on the surface seems insane to some. Fouchier says what he did in the lab was mutate a few genes. That happens regularly in nature.
Fouchier insists the dangerous part of this virus isn't what he has created in the lab, it is what can happen if nature creates something similar. He says this should be a wakeup call for public health authorities around the world.
In the history of epidemics and pandemics nothing has been as lethal as the bird flu Fouchier has created. The most deadly epidemic of the last century was the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918. Virtually everyone in the world was infected. It is estimated that between 50 and 100 million people died -- conservatively that means it killed 3 percent of those infected. In a globalized world of air travel and mass transit, the prospect of an airborne bird flu with a 60 percent death rate is terrifying.
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."