After a voluntary recess, researchers are ready to get back to work studying mutations of the H5N1 influenza virus. The genetically modified virus, previously impassable between birds and mammals, may have the potential to kill millions if it escapes laboratory facilities.
The H5N1 strain of bird flu was first identified in 1997 in Hong Kong. Not easily passed between birds and mammals, the virus still managed to infect around 600 people between then and now, killing 60% of them.
Scientists have been able to genetically modify the H5N1 flu strain so that it is not only capable of being transmitted from birds to mammals, but the GM strain is now capable of airborne transmission. These developments caused concern over public health should the GM strain escape a laboratory, causing a 1-year moratorium on research. During this period of time, health experts from all over the globe conversed and debated about the safety of continuing the research.
After debate, it has been decided that research may continue if the laboratories are equipped with the proper biosafety and security protocols to prevent a pandemic-causing release of the virus. While scientists are thrilled to get back to work, there is still concern among many that more study could end in the loss of life.
Prior to the moratorium, researchers were asked by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to refrain from including certain details about the experiments in their journal articles, in fear that bioterrorists could use them as “how to” guide for a global pandemic. However, even with all of these protocols in place, and scientists happily complying for the sake of public safety, there is still a pandemic threat should the virus ever escape.
Scientists argue that since the virus already exists within nature that human risk is already elevated for contraction. Viruses modify regularly on their own and without research on what mutations could occur, there could be a vast death toll if the virus ever did naturally spread on its own. It is projected that if H5N1 spread to humans the population would be decimated as the virus has a projected 50% mortality rate.
The topic of H5N1 is a double edge sword. By doing nothing, humans are leaving themselves susceptible to a virus of global pandemic capabilities. By researching it, we could cause the pandemic ourselves. However, most health experts feel the benefits of continuing the research under newly formed restrictions far outweigh the risks of doing nothing.
NPR – Shots: Health News from NPR – http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/01/23/170072436/scientists-put-an-end-to-moratorium-on-bird-flu-research