Details of secret experiments on deadly man-made bird flu that kills over half of the people it infects WILL get out, says bioterrorism watchdog
‘The infrastructure to stop a pandemic is not there,’ says Professor Paul Keim
By Ted Thornhill
Last updated at 1:19 PM on 8th February 2012
Details of secret experiments by scientists who have created the most deadly form of bird flu in the lab will inevitably be leaked – potentially into the hands of terrorists – an expert has warned.
A furore erupted in December over the decision by the U.S National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to censor details of the virus being made public, which can be transmitted by coughs and sneezes.
But now the head of that board claims they will enter the public domain anyway.
Professor Paul Keim has issued a stark warning to governments to begin preparing for an outbreak.
‘We recognise that, in the long term certainly, the information is going to get out, and maybe even in the midterm,’ he told The Independent.
‘But if we can restrict it in the short term and motivate governments to start getting busy in terms of building up the flu-defence infrastructure, then we’ve succeeded at a certain level.’
Chillingly, he added: ‘The infrastructure to stop a pandemic in this area is not there. We just don’t have the capabilities. Even if we spotted it early on, I don’t think we have enough vaccines. The vaccines aren’t good enough, and the drugs are not good enough to stop this emerging and being a pandemic.’
When H5N1 bird flu erupted over seven years ago, out of the 584 people known to have caught it, 335 died.
What stopped it from becoming a world-wide killer was its inability to jump from birds to humans easily.
However, a mutation of the virus was made by Ron Fouchier and his team at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam in Holland, which was just as deadly and passed easily between ferrets, the animal that best indicates whether humans will catch it.
In December, the NSABB asked the journals Nature and Science to censor publication of the study, and similar research conducted by American scientists, setting off a furious debate in the scientific and public health communities.
The move followed a voluntary 60-day suspension of a study into the virus by the researchers themselves, who became worried that their work could lead to a pandemic.
Fears were raised that the engineered viruses may escape from the laboratories – not unlike the frightful scenario in the 1971 science fiction movie The Andromeda Strain – or possibly be used to create a bioterror weapon.
In a letter published in Nature and Science, 39 scientists defended the research as crucial to public health efforts.
Among the scientists who signed the letter were leaders of the two teams that have spearheaded the research, at Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as influenza experts at institutions ranging from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the University of Hong Kong.