Imagine a flu season in which the disease hits a quarter of the U.S. population and kills 675,000 Americans, mostly young adults, and upward of 40 million people worldwide. That was the reality of the infamous 1918 flu pandemic. Nothing like it has been seen since, but increasing numbers of scientists are conducting research whose risks could lead to an even more devastating global pandemic, this one caused by an altered flu virus escaping from one of dozens of laboratories investigating it.
A likely culprit: the much talked about H5N1 avian flu virus, among the deadliest known in percentage of victims it kills. It has so far been spread almost entirely by direct contact of a person — usually a poultry worker in Asia — with infected chickens or ducks. But what if it were airborne-transmissible from person to person? Imagine the devastation if a tourist could catch it from an infected poultry worker and spread it by a cough or a sneeze among fellow travelers who would all carry it home. Such an outbreak could lead to that unimaginable pandemic.
Making the H5N1 virus transmissible from person to person is precisely the goal of such research, which could be stepped up sharply as soon as the NIH establishes rules governing such experiments for its own grantees.
But the dangerous race is already on. A lab in Germany is trying to make canine distemper virus contagious between humans. Once again the rationale is to understand how that might occur in nature. Why risk a laboratory-caused outbreak of virulent, human contagious distemper? And a lab in China reported making combination of H5N1 bird flu and human H1N1 viruses contagious in guinea pigs, again with the goal of creating human contagion. Should we try to make any and all animal viruses contagious in humans simply to learn how it can be done?
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