Nov. 29, 2011 -- Research on the bird flu virus that involved creating a highly contagious strain has some scientists worried that the findings could lead to the development of a bioweapon, according to numerous media outlets.
At a European flu conference in September, Ron Fouchier, a scientist at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, doing vaccine research presented his work on H5N1, the virus that causes bird flu. By infecting ferrets with different altered strains of the virus manufactured in the laboratory, he and his colleagues discovered a form of the virus that was lethal and easily spread through the air.
Fouchier explained it took only five mutations for the virus to become extremely contagious. The ferrets infected with the new virus died. Ferrets are often used in flu virus research, experts say, because viruses multiply in these animals in ways similar to humans.
In a press release from Erasmus Medical Center, Fouchier said it's possible for the virus to change into a form that can infect humans.
"We have discovered that this is indeed possible, and more easily than previously thought", said Fouchier. "In the laboratory, it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol transmissible virus that can easily be rapidly spread through the air. This process could also take place in a natural setting."
While thousands of people and millions of birds have died from bird flu worldwide, it never became a global human scourge because H5N1 isn't easily spread among humans, and it's primarily seen in people who are in close contact with infected birds.
But like any virus, H5N1 can mutate, and the possibility of creating such a lethal and transmissible form of the virus caught the attention of scientists in the United States. Before Fouchier's research is published in a scientific journal, it is undergoing review by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a government committee tasked with assessing research known as "dual use," meaning it has scientific value, but could also pose a threat to public health.
The NSABB does not have the power to prevent publication of scientific findings, but it can request that journals not publish certain studies.
In the medical center press release, Fouchier said his research can be helpful, not harmful.
"We now know which mutations to watch for in the case of an outbreak and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late. Furthermore, the finding will help in the timely development of vaccinations and medication."
One member of the NSABB contacted by ABC News didn't want to comment on Fouchier's research, saying he wants to wait until the board releases its findings.
But one scientist not affiliated with NSABB, Dr. Thomas Inglesby, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Biosecurity, told NPR this research should not be made public.
"It's just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus, and it's a second bad idea to publish how they did it so others can copy it," Inglesby said.
Other biosecurity experts, however, aren't as sure. Dr. Harvey Rubin, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis, said the research, based upon what's been made public, seems to fall under the category of dual use, but without knowing more, isn't sure it shouldn't be published.
"This work would really show how to increase the transmissibility of an infectious agent, but does that mean it could be used for harm? Absolutely not. Does it mean it shouldn't be published? No," he said.
He also added that it's entirely possible that a potential terrorist already knows about these same mutations, which aren't new. But he stressed the research needs to be reviewed carefully before it is published.
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"Influenza is thought not to be a very effective bioterrorism agent because it can't be targeted toward a specific population and can't be contained," he said. "It would spread, including to the terrorist's own population."
There is always the danger that improper handling in a laboratory setting could accidentally unleash a virus into the air. Schaffner said that happened with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the disease that caused about 750 deaths around the world earlier this decade.
Viruses regularly change forms, and H5N1, while it doesn't affect humans much right now, certainly has the capacity to do so.
"Viruses can change from season to season and can become more or less virulent, and there's definitely a concern that H5N1 will mutate to a form that can infect humans," said Dr. Maria Alcalde, assistant professor of infectious diseases at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.
Despite the warnings about Fouchier's research, Schaffner said what happens in the lab doesn't always happen outside it.
"It's scientifically conceivable and it's an interesting lab phenomenon, but in nature, it doesn't look as though it could happen," he said. "There's no immediate public health importance."