That, says Ebright, is why future research involving bird flu viruses should only be done in laboratories with highest so-called biosafety level, BSL-4. Currently only the second-highest level, BSL-3, is required. During their experiments, Fouchier and Kawaoka only wore lab coats and breathing masks, not the "spacesuits" that virologists wear when they are working with pathogens like the Ebola virus.
'An Early Warning System'
Fouchier would prefer to take things a step further and send his pathogen to other labs around the world. "We are at the very beginning, and we need as many scientists and their ideas as possible, so that we can understand why this new virus is so contagious," he says.
In the end, whether the experiments with Fouchier's super-flu virus will continue or possibly be stopped altogether will probably not be determined by issues of safety, but by their potential benefits.
The situation is clear to Fouchier. Using his killer virus, he wants to find out which mutations in the genome are responsible for the extreme infection rates. "We'll know where to look in the future," says the virologist, who hopes that his research will allow him to develop an "early warning system for pandemics."
But this is precisely what others see as an illusion, noting that the monitoring of poultry and especially pigs, in which new viruses develop with particular frequency, is still far too incomplete. A colleague who knows Fouchier's work very well says that the experiments are "nothing more than a piece of the puzzle." Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan