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Bird flu experiments produced no killer virus, scientists say

Published Apr. 4, 2012

LONDON — Two controversial research projects with the H5N1 bird flu virus haven't produced a killer bug but have generated useful information, two researchers told scientists and bioethicists gathered here to talk about the benefits and pitfalls of manipulating deadly pathogens.

"We can use this information to understand what's happening in nature," Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin told the group, which is meeting to discuss experiments on the much-feared flu strain that has infected 600 people, killing more than half of them, since 2003. He said his work is already shedding light on outbreaks in Egypt, the country with the second-largest number of H5N1 cases over that period.

The meeting at the Royal Society was called after two science journals agreed in December to hold off publishing two papers on the bird-flu experiments because they were thought to contain information too dangerous for public consumption.

The journals were asked to do so by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a committee of scientists that advises the U.S. government about federally funded research, such as these experiments.

That committee changed its mind last week after a closer examination of old and new data provided by Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier, who heads a research team at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The journals, Nature and Science, say they plan to publish the papers soon.

A few details of Fouchier's experiment were released last month, allaying some fears about its hazards.

Kawaoka revealed an even fuller version of his work here Tuesday, further defusing worries. Numerous listeners, however, said it is only a matter of time before the question of whether to publish the results of "dual use research" — research that could be used for good or bad purposes — comes up again.

Fouchier said, "We have heard in the press that if this escapes, it will kill half the world's population. I find that very doubtful."

Normally, bird flu is hard for people to catch. It requires close contact with sick birds and almost never passes from person to person.

The scientists doctored the H5N1 virus to try to find out what genetic changes might make it easier to transmit. That way, scientists would know how to identify changes in the naturally occurring virus that might be warning signals that it was developing pandemic potential. It was also hoped that the research might lead to better treatments.