London: A group of scientists has caused a storm of controversy after creating a man-made virus that could potentially wipe out humanity if it ever escaped the laboratory where it was made.
The deadly virus is a genetically tweaked version of the H5N1 bird flu strain, but is far more infectious and could pass easily between millions of people at a time.
The current strain of H5N1 has only killed 500 people and is not contagious enough to cause a global pandemic, but there are fears that the modified virus is so dangerous it could be used for bio-warfare, if it falls into the wrong hands.
Virologist Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands led a team of scientists who discovered that a mere five mutations to the avian virus was sufficient to make it spread far more easily.
He conducted his tests on ferrets as the animals have become a model of choice for influenza and have similar respiratory tracts to humans.
Fouchier is so prepared for a media storm that he has already hired an advisor to help him work on a communication strategy.
The research done was a part of an international drive to understand H5N1 more fully.
Fouchier admitted that the strain is “one of the most dangerous viruses you can make” but is still adamant that he wants to publish a paper describing how it was done.
The study is one of two which has caused serious debate about scientific freedom and about regulating research which might have potential public health benefits but at the same time could also be useful for bio-terrorism.
Both the papers are now being reviewed by the U.S National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB).
“I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one. I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this,” the Daily Mail quoted Paul Keim, chairman of NSABB as saying.