Last year Dr Fouchier came under intense pressure from the US government and the media when it became obvious that the ability to turn a slowly-spreading virus into an airborne one – as in movies like Contagion and Outbreak -- could be a boon for bioterrorists. As a result, he stopped work on the virus until the political issues could be resolved.
Dr Fouchier’s study in Nature described how to create an airborne mutation of the H5N1 virus – a strain of animal flu. It was initially suppressed by a US government agency, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. The NSABB feared that the study could be used by bioterrorists to create a pandemic. It was only published after an outcry from the scientific community and after Dr Fouchier made it clear that his airborne strain was not lethal. Infected ferrets used in the study did not die.
Far from being a tool for terrorists, this research is vital for fighting a potential H5N1 pandemic, says Dr Fouchier: “This is really what is so critical about our research; not the fact that we just made one virus that’s airborne. We now (have) much more insight into how flu viruses in general become airborne.”
Critics of Fouchier’s research believe that it has no clear purpose and could be extremely dangerous. “Learning about that one pathway produces no useful or actionable information,” said Richard Ebright, a chemistry and chemical biology professor at Rutgers University. “It makes no sense to invest scarce resources in research that does not have a path to clear application — and carries large risks.”
This article is published by Xavier Symons and BioEdge.org under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.