Should scientists be allowed to create extremely aggressive and highly infectious influenza viruses? Dutch virologists have done it and, in the process, triggered a fierce debate over the risks of bioterrorism and the potential release of deadly viruses.
The 17th floor of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Dutch city of Rotterdam certainly doesn't look like the kind of place that could pose a threat to global security. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling in the hallway in front of the elevators, and a bar with a golden beer tap stands in the corner of the conference room.
Everything in this 1960s high-rise building evokes the charm of student life, including the door to Room 17.73, which is covered with colorful stickers. But some view the scientist who sits behind that door as a threat to mankind.
Ron Fouchier, a giant of a man at more than two meters tall (6'6"), has dark circles under his eyes. His life has been stressful lately. "They want to paint me as a homicidal idiot," he says heatedly. He is referring, most of all, to a powerful institution from the United States, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB).
In his work Fouchier, a virologist, uses the methods of a branch of research that is as booming as it is controversial. Synthetic biology employs targeted manipulation through genetic engineering to construct new organisms. The 45-year-old's research has even set off alarm bells at the World Health Organization (WHO). This week, Fouchier will appear before an international panel of experts at the WHO to explain his experiments.
Fouchier is attracting so much attention because he has created a new organism. And although it is tiny, if it escaped from his laboratory it would claim far more human lives than an exploding nuclear power plant.
The pathogen is a new mutation of the feared bird flu virus, H5N1. In nature, this virus, which kills one of every two people infected, has not yet been transmitted from humans to humans. So far, a relatively small number of people have caught the virus from poultry, and 336 people have died.
Scientific Wake-Up Call
For years, experts feared that the adaptable virus could soon mutate from being primarily a bird killer to a highly infectious threat to humans. But as the years passed and this did not happen, many hoped that it might not even be possible, and some of the fears subsided.
But now Fouchier's experiments have given the research community a wake-up call. The scientist performed only a few targeted manipulations on the genetic material of the ordinary H5N1 virus and, to make the virus even more dangerous, he repeatedly transmitted it from one laboratory animal to the next.
"In the end, the virus became airborne," the Dutch scientist explains. From then on Fouchier's ferrets, animals that most closely resemble humans when it comes to influenza, transmitted the virus to each other without direct contact, through tiny droplets of saliva and mucus.
Many scientists are particularly impressed by the fact that, at almost the same time, another research team also managed to produce a bird flu virus that could be transmitted via airborne respiratory droplets. To achieve this, virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin combined the avian flu virus with the swine flu virus. The newly created superbug is highly infectious, however not particularly dangerous to the ferrets Kawaoka used in his experiments.