Public Health

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

As of today, anyone can look at the journal "Science" and read about how to make mutant forms of a bird flu virus. The virus isn't normally contagious between people, but these mutants most likely are. They were created by a lab that's trying to understand how flu viruses might change in the wild, and start spreading in humans.

But as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains, some people aren't happy that the recipe for a potential pandemic is now available to everyone.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The man at the center of this controversy is a Dutch virologist named Ron Fouchier. He says there were two moments when he realized that his bird flu research was going to be a really, really big deal. The first was last July. His team had managed to genetically alter the bird flu virus H5N1, so that the viruses were able to spread from ferret to ferret through coughs and sneezes. And ferrets are the lab stand-in for people.

DR. RON FOUCHIER: This is really a scientific breakthrough, a fundamental scientific breakthrough. And it really opens enormous new opportunities in science. So that's exciting.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Fouchier says the study shows that just a handful of mutations could transform this virus into a pandemic threat. And that's important to know. For years, H5N1 has been circulating in poultry overseas. Only about 600 hundred people are known to have gotten sick, but over half of those died. They were not contagious. Fouchier says understanding the mutations that could let this virus start spreading, is essential to prepare for a possible pandemic.

FOUCHIER: We are not playing with viruses just for the heck of it, you know. We are doing fundamental research to prevent public health threats.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Fouchier's second moment of realizing how big this was, came last November. Fouchier does his research at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, but it's funded by the U.S. government. Officials here asked an advisory committee to weigh in on whether publishing this work could be dangerous.

FOUCHIER: At that stage, we were confident that they would agree with us that the benefits of this work by far outweighed the risks. And when they came with their advice, we were simply shocked.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The advice was to keep the details secret; that publishing them would be like handing out the recipe for a super-flu. This recommendation was unprecedented in basic biological research, which has a tradition of openness.

For months, a debate has been raging. There's been international conferences, passionate op-eds, closed-door meetings. Flu scientists put a voluntary moratorium on this kind of research that's still in effect. And the U.S. government issued a new policy, to try to prevent a future crisis like this one.

So even though the majority of the advisory committee eventually reconsidered and said, go ahead and publish, the controversy is far from over. One committee member is David Relman. He's a microbiologist at Stanford University. He still thinks it's a bad idea to publicly reveal the details of this experiment.

DR. DAVID RELMAN: What they have done is taken a very worrisome virus and made it even more worrisome; to a degree that is not easily matched in nature, or even in our imagination.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Relman doesn't think he's exaggerating the potential danger. He recognizes that in theory, this work has benefits. He just thinks they're outweighed by the risks - not just the threat of bioterrorism, but also simple lab accidents that could let a mutant flu escape.

RELMAN: The bottom line is that with the information in this paper, it becomes much easier for someone to make this virus and therefore, pose risks to others.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's not the only one with these concerns. Nevertheless, Fouchier is seeing his research published in the journal "Science."

FOUCHIER: I've been asked whether this was - felt like a real victory. And it still doesn't because I'm still afraid that some governments might be installing more of a regulatory system than I think is needed. And if that comes from this work, then I'm not particularly happy. But, of course, we are very happy about the publication itself.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Before his manuscript could be published, the Dutch government did insist that Fouchier get a special permit, one that's normally required for the export of technology that could be used for weapons. He did so, under protest.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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