The H5N1 virus, also known as the bird flu virus, is highly contagious and deadly in birds. On rare occasions it infects humans, where it is also deadly. What saves us from a pandemic is that it is not yet highly transmissible between humans. The big worry is that the virus will undergo a change that makes it more transmissible between humans, leading to a human pandemic.
Recently, scientists who were studying the H5N1 virus managed to modify it, making it more contagious to humans. They were surprised, in fact, with how easy it was to do. Now they have voluntarily agreed to suspend the research and to hold back some of the details of how they did it, to give the scientific community time to debate the value of the research and to discuss how to disseminate the important findings of the research without giving out too much information to the wrong people. The researchers explain their decision in a letter published in several scientific journals.
The danger of such research is that the modified virus could escape from the laboratory and infect humans. Even worse is the possibility that it could find its way into the hands of terrorists, or that publication of the details of the research would open the way for terrorists to duplicate the feat – like providing the recipe for a bomb online. On the other hand, clearly there is potential value in such research; understanding how viruses make the transition from infecting animals to infecting humans may help us identify and contain viruses that are in the process of doing so. It might even help us find ways to stop them before they make the transition.
Both points of view are valid, of course. And while there are several sides to this issue, it’s encouraging that scientists seem to be working together to come to grips with it. Both have the same goal – to protect humans from an H5N1 pandemic. The question is how best to do that.