Super-Flu: Controversy Brews Over Scientists' Creation of Killer Viruses


To buy some time in the face of so much opposition, 39 influenza researchers from around the world began a 60-day moratorium on all research related to controversial viruses at the end of January. "We realize that organizations and governments around the world need time to find the best solutions for opportunities and challenges that stem from the work," the scientists wrote in an open letter published in Nature.

But the scientists are deeply divided over what exactly these solutions should look like. While some would prefer not to make any changes, Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, proposes making research with artificially produced bird flu viruses subject to strict regulation, as is the case with pox viruses.

Past Experiments

But if such regulation is imposed, it will have to apply to more than avian flu viruses. Similarly controversial experiments have also been conducted with other pathogens:

-- In 2001, a mouse pox virus that was 100-percent fatal was accidentally created in an Australian laboratory. The genetic makeup of the killer virus was published.

-- In 2005, scientists at Stanford University calculated that a terrorist attack with botulinum toxin in milk could kill 568,000 people. The Bush administration tried in vain to prevent the paper from being published.

-- Nature recently published instructions on how to create the plague virus.

-- The influenza virus that caused the devastating Spanish Flu in 1918 has been completely recreated.

But security authorities only seem to be getting uneasy now, as they suddenly ask themselves a fundamental question: How great is the risk that such pathogens could escape from the laboratory, and that scientists would trigger precisely the devastating pandemic that they are in fact trying to prevent with their research?

Differing Safety Levels

Most virologists feel that the risks are justifiable. "We have set up a laboratory here that has three separate physical barriers," Fouchier insists. The core of the laboratory consists of wardrobe-sized boxes outfitted with glass windows, each containing four cages of ferrets.

Two pairs of black rubber gloves are poking into the boxes. "Before we take swabs from the animals or inject viruses into the nostrils, we put steel gloves on over the rubber gloves," says Fouchier. For security reasons, he is not even willing to provide the exact location of the laboratory.

The low pressure in the boxes provides additional protection, because it is intended to ensure that even in the event of a leak, no viruses will escape. In addition, everything that leaves the boxes is disinfected with acetic acid in a safety area.

"And if I did infect myself, we have isolation wards in the adjacent hospital," Fouchier explains. "It's practically impossible for one of my team members to accidentally take the virus along into the Rotterdam subway."

Nevertheless, not even Fouchier can deny that pathogens have escaped from highly secure laboratories. The "Russian flu" of 1977 may have been triggered by a lab virus. SARS, a respiratory disease, almost returned when laboratory workers became infected with the coronavirus during their work. A scientist in Chicago even died of SARS in 2009.

Hundreds of new virus laboratories have been established worldwide in recent years, and highly dangerous pathogens are used in a large share of these laboratories. "The risk of a virus being released accidentally is considerable," says critic Ebright.

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