Virus Research Dangerous But Important


Katie Hoskins, Staff Writer

In 1917, the deadliest outbreak of a flu virus plagued the globe, killing over 50 million people in a matter of months. The Spanish-flu epidemic still holds the spot for causing the most deaths due to influenza with a mortality rate between 2 and 3 percent.

However, now scientists have found a possibly even more destructive, terrifying virus, with the capacity to kill 59 percent of the people it infects. Currently research on the virus has been placed under a moratorium for two months. However, despite the risks, exploration of the virus must continue to ensure that we are prepared in the event of a viral pandemic. Furthermore, such findings must be published to allow the scientific community to collaborate and better understand the potentially devastating organism.

Since 1997, the H5N1 avian flu virus has infected 587 people in five different countries, killing 339. The good news is that at this point, it can’t be transmitted through the air from person to person, like the seasonal flu. The only way to be infected is to come into direct contact with infected birds, which at this point don’t live in the United States.

There are three conditions a virus must meet in order to trigger a pandemic: humans must have no previously established immunity so that the immune system doesn’t know exactly how to combat the intruders, it must infect and kill humans, and it must spread easily from human to human. H5N1 meets the first two criteria, but not the third. Scientific research could change all that.

Recently, at the annual meeting of the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza in Malta, virologist Ron Fouchier announced he had made an astonishing and terrifying breakthrough regarding H5N1. In his lab in Rotterdam, Fouchier successfully mutated the virus so it can quickly transmit through the air. The new, highly contagious mutant was tested on ferrets that were divided by physical barriers. Since the animals had no direct contact, the viruses must have traveled through the air and entered their bodies through respiratory tracts.

Some may be temped to adopt the “so what they’re just ferrets” attitude. But ferrets actually have a respiratory system very similar to that of humans, so whatever happens to the ferrets in the lab could potentially happen to humans all over the world. And so far, that outcome is death.

If the mutated highly contagious virus ever escaped from the high security lab, an epidemic of massive proportions could begin, killing the majority of the world’s population. This fear isn’t only for Hollywood in movies like Contagion. It could very well become a reality if the virus isn’t handled properly by scientists in high-security labs. Outbreaks of viruses that are worked on under such high security are rare but not unheard of, and the escape of H5N1 is a very real possibility.

However, research like Fouchier’s is necessary and can’t be postponed or stopped because of the possible consequences. Labs like Fouchier’s use deadly viruses to test possible treatments and vaccines as a precaution in case a contagious mutant ever occurred in nature. If such research is suspended just because there is a risk that it could escape, we will lose our ability to even attempt to fight an epidemic.

Viruses can also travel insanely quickly. In 2009, health officials weren’t even aware of the existence of the swine flu virus until it had spread across the globe. In nature, viruses are constantly evolving as they encounter new treatments and immunities, and these new strains can be created relativly undetected. If scientists were equally as caught off guard by avian flu as they were by that of the swine flu, most of the world would perish or be infected and contagious before research even had a chance to begin.

If we allow research to continue despite the risk of the virus escaping, we will have more information about the nature of the virus itself: how it specifically infects people, how it is transferred, and how we can fight it off are all questions that can potentially be answered.Then, if and when the virus evolves in nature to be contagious to humans, we will be ready to put up a fight.

But scientific research is not a one-man battle. While Fouchier did contribute a major breakthrough to the field of H1N1 virology, he hasn’t solved the entire puzzle and will need other scientists’ contributions to confirm and expand his findings. If his results are not published and made available to the scientific community, progress will be stifled and we will not be able to fight a pandemic.

Some critics are concerned that bioterrorists across the globe could use Fouchier’s published research to recreate the mutant virus and launch a massive terrorist attack on the globe. This recreation would be fairly easy for anyone with access to a lab, chemicals, and a small amount of money.

However, even if a popular and trusted scientific journal like Nature hadn’t published Fouchier’s personal findings, someone somewhere would definitely perform the same research and post it somewhere on the Internet. From there, anyone can access it and make the virus. In fact, it’s been done before. In 2002, a man at Stony Brook University created a fully functional polio virus from DNA fragments he got through the Internet.

Either way, anyone will probably be able to recreate the virus in the future whether we like it or not. But viruses are hard to specifically control and a bioterrorist attack using the H5N1 virus would be pretty much impossible to target to a specific group. So, it’s really only a possibility that anyone will even want to use the virus for malevolent purposes should the information on how to manufacture it be released to the public.

In nature however, the virus will definitely become transmissable to the same degree as Fouchier’s. We can’t be sure when or where the H5N1 virus will become contagious to humans, but we have to be ready. And without research like Fouchier’s, we have no hope of anticipating such a catastrophe.