Friday, January 20, 2012

Studies regarding dangerous H5N1 virus halted

Scientists all over the world have agreed to no longer study a dangerous variant of the flu virus in their labs. After they discovered that their lab strain could easily kill people and spread effectively, the researchers sparked public outcry. After a large round of criticism, no more lab work is done until governments and ethical commissions decide what the best next step is.

A specific type of flu virus, dubbed H5N1, is of particular interest to scientists because of its frequent outbreaks and epidemics in animals, mostly birds. It is able to affect humans, but so far we seem to have been lucky during H5N1 epidemics or pandemics. Though, experiments revealed we are able to mutate the flu strain into a more dangerous one. Studies have shown that the lab strain is highly lethal and spread effectively among ferrets. In lab experiments, ferrets are a lab model for humans, because they possess similar defence systems.

Previously, H5N1 was ineffective in its spread among humans. Though it is highly lethal with a mortality rate of 60 percent, it did not manage to infect many people during outbreaks that started in 2003. Because the lab version is adapted to spread more efficiently, an escape from the lab could cost the lives of millions of people. Though this scenario is unlikely, the studies have been reported as a form of bioterror. Ron Fouchier, the leading scientist of the Dutch study in Rotterdam, proclaimed that it is one of the most dangerous viruses you can make. Until recently, there was an additional study being performed in the United States.

Flu names
There are many forms of influenza, which is the virus underlying the flu. They are mostly referred to as HxNx, where the x is a number. H and N are short for hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, two molecules present on the viral surface. Each form of these molecules is presented as a number, which means that H5N1 and H1N1, which spread terror as the Spanish flu in 1918, have the same form of neuraminidase.
Gene therapy
It is not the first time that research on a particular subject was halted because of safety concerns. During the seventies, scientists succeeded for the first time to genetically modify an organism by putting a new gene inside. Many people were afraid this would lead to organisms with undesirable characteristics that, when escaping into the wild, could wreak havoc on wildlife. Or even worse, on us. Nowadays scientists freely genetically modify all sorts of organisms, including bacteria, yeast, mice and rats.

Studies will be halted for at least sixty days, while officials investigate what the next step will be. It is however unlikely that the experiments will be restarted after the recent flood of criticism from the public. However, the scientists were able to make H5N1 much more virulent by modifying just five elements in its genetic code. Because viruses, especially flu, readily mutate, it does not seem unlikely that a wildtype H5N1 will adopt the lab features independently. It is good to be well-prepared against any future and serious outbreak of the flu, which is bound to happen. If we possess a highly dangerous lab strain, it means we can study it and possibly develop new drugs to kill them. The question is whether this weighs up against the dangers of having a highly lethal virus somewhere in a lab. Future research will be focused on discovering how current variants of the flu can end up causing human pandemics.


  1. whereever you have this picture from; the title is wrong. The H1N1 virus is colloquial called the "swine flu" the H5N1-Virus is the "avian-flu".

    But it is a very nice articel. :)