A deadly strain of bird flu with the potential to infect and kill millions of people has been created in a laboratory by European scientists – who now want to publish full details of how they did it. The discovery has prompted fears within the US Government that the knowledge will fall into the hands of terrorists wanting to use it as a bio-weapon of mass destruction.
The study was carried out by a Dutch team of scientists led by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, where the mutated virus is stored under lock and key in a basement building.
Dr Fouchier, who declined to answer questions until a decision is made on publication, said in a statement released on the university’s website that it only took a small number of mutations to change the avian flu virus into a form that could spread more easily between humans.
On Tuesday, federal officials took the unprecedented step of asking those scientists not to publicize all the details of how they did it.
The worry: That this research with lots of potential to help the public might also be hijacked by would-be bioterrorists. The labs found that it appears easier than scientists had thought for the so-called H5N1 bird flu to evolve in a way that lets it spread easily among at least some mammals.
Some scientists are questioning whether the research should ever have been undertaken in a university laboratory, instead of at a military facility.
The US Government is now taking advice on whether the information is too dangerous to be published. “The fear is that if you create something this deadly and it goes into a global pandemic, the mortality and cost to the world could be massive,” a senior scientific adviser to the US Government told The Independent, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The worst-case scenario here is worse than anything you can imagine.”
EU Health Commissioner John Dalli said: “The Dutch authorities confirmed that the virus itself is stored in a very secured way and that the necessary permits were given and that the researchers are bound by a code of conduct.”
Bird flu causes death in 60% of human cases, but only 350 people have died worldwide from the disease to date.
If you value what we do here, create your ad-free account and support our journalism.