The Register Guard, December 27, 2011
(Originally posted in New York Times, written by Denise Grady and Donald McNeil Jr.)
Posted here: Thursday, December 29, 2011 @ 6:55 PM
The young scientist, normally calm and measured, seemed edgy when he stopped by his boss’s office.
“You are not going to believe this one,” he told Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Holland. “I think we have an airborne H5N1 virus.”
The news, delivered one afternoon last July, was chilling. It meant that Fouchier’s research group had taken one of the most dangerous flu viruses ever known and made it even more dangerous — by tweaking it genetically to make it more contagious.
What shocked the researchers was how easy it had been, Fouchier said. Just a few mutations were all it took to make the virus go airborne.
The discovery has led advisers to the U.S. government, which paid for the research, to urge that the details be kept secret and not published in scientific journals to prevent the work from being replicated by terrorists, hostile governments or rogue scientists.
Journal editors are taking the recommendation seriously, even though they normally resist any form of censorship. Scientists, too, usually insist on their freedom to share information, but fears of terrorism have led some to say this information is too dangerous to share.
Some biosecurity experts have even said that no scientist should have been allowed to create such a deadly germ in the first place, and they warn that not just the blueprints but the virus itself somehow could leak or be stolen from the laboratory.
Fouchier is cooperating with the request to withhold some data, but reluctantly. He thinks other scientists need the information.
The naturally occurring A(H5N1) virus is quite lethal without genetic tinkering. It already causes an exceptionally high death rate in humans, more than 50 percent. But the virus — a type of bird flu — does not often infect people, and when it does, they almost never transmit it to one another.
If, however, that were to change and bird flu were to develop the ability to spread from person to person, scientists fear, it could cause the deadliest flu pandemic in history.
The experiment in Rotterdam transformed the virus into the supergerm of virologists’ nightmares, enabling it to spread from one animal to another through the air. The work was done in ferrets, which catch flu the same way people do.
“This research should not have been done,” said Richard Ebright, a chemistry professor and bioweapons expert at Rutgers University who has long opposed such research.
Ebright warned that germs that could be used as bioweapons already had been released unintentionally hundreds of times from labs in the United States and predicted that the same thing would happen with the new virus.
“It will inevitably escape, and within a decade,” he said.
But Fouchier and many public health experts argue that the experiment had to be done. If scientists can make the virus more transmissible in the lab, then it also can happen in nature, Fouchier said.
Knowing that the risk is real should drive countries where the virus is circulating in birds to take urgent steps to eradicate it, he said. And knowing which mutations lead to transmissibility should help scientists who monitor bird flu to recognize if and when a circulating strain starts to develop pandemic potential.
“There are highly respected virologists who thought until a few years ago that H5N1 could never become airborne between mammals,” Fouchier said.
“I wasn’t convinced. To prove these guys wrong, we needed to make a virus that is transmissible.”
Other virologists differ.
Dr. W. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University questioned the need for the research. He rejected Fouchier’s contention that making a virus transmissible in the laboratory proves that it can or will happen in nature.
But Richard Webby, a virologist at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., said Fouchier’s research was useful, with the potential to answer major questions about flu viruses, such as what makes them transmissible and how some that appear to infect only animals suddenly can invade humans as well.
“I would certainly love to be able to see that information,” Webby said, explaining that he has a freezer full of bird flu viruses from all over the world. “If I detect a virus in our activities that has some of these changes, it could change the direction of what we do.”
The A(H5N1) bird flu first was recognized in Hong Kong in 1997, when chickens in poultry markets began dying and 18 people fell ill, six of them fatally. Hoping to stamp out the virus, the government in Hong Kong destroyed the country’s entire poultry industry — killing more than 1 million birds in just a few days .
But the virus persisted in other parts of Asia, and it reached Europe and Africa. Millions of infected birds have died. Since 1997, about 600 humans have been infected, and more than half died.
Dr. Donald Henderson, a leader in the eradication of smallpox and now a biosecurity expert at the University of Pittsburgh, noted that even the notorious flu pandemic of 1918 killed only 2 percent of patients.
“This is running at 50 percent or more,” Henderson said. “This would be the ultimate organism as far as destruction of population is concerned.”
The medical center in Rotterdam built a special 1,000-square-foot virus lab for this work, a locked-down locale where people work in spacesuits in sealed chambers with filtered air and multiple precautions to keep germs in and intruders out and to protect the scientists.
The Dutch government and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the laboratory, and the National Institutes of Health gave the Erasmus center a seven-year contract for flu research.