Via Comment is Free on The Guardian: When it comes to bird flu, nature is the greatest bioterrorist. Excerpt:
A few months ago, Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier made what he hoped would be a low-key announcement at a conference on influenza in Malta. After a series of painstaking experiments, Fouchier announced he had achieved the holy grail of influenza research: engineering the H5N1 bird flu virus so that it could pass easily between mammals. The "airborne" virus had been created, Fouchier explained, not by using sophisticated, lab-based genetic technology but by the relatively low-tech method of passaging H5N1 repeatedly through ferrets.
The significance of the discovery was not lost on the assembled delegates. If ferrets could be infected this way, then so could humans. Fouchier had realised the World Health Organisation's worst nightmare.
However, that might have been the end of the story were it not for a resourceful journalist at Science, who – seeing a potential headline – tracked Fouchier down to his lab at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam in November and got him to explain in more detail precisely how his team had created "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make".
In so doing, Fouchier crossed an invisible border, triggering biosecurity alarms at the highest echelons of the US government and, in the process, alerting the Daily Mail's news desk, who wasted no time in ramping up the fears about an inadvertent laboratory release of the "Armageddon virus".
The latest twist came this week, with the announcement that officials at the Orwellian-sounding US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) had taken the unprecedented step of asking Fouchier and another team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who have also succeeded in engineering the virus, not to publish all the details of how they did it.
In fact, this is not the first time that biosecurity chiefs have gone apeshit over Frankenstein-style experiments on viruses. In 2005, there were similar fits of hysterics when US scientists succeeded in resurrecting the "Spanish flu" virus, the bug responsible for the deadliest pandemic in history, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide in 1918. On that occasion, the NSABB also insisted on reviewing the research, before relenting at the eleventh hour and deciding that the merits of publication outweighed the risks of releasing potentially dangerous knowledge.