Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Much A-Flu About Nothing (Post 3 of 2 - a little add on)

I’d just like to make a little add on to my previous post, as I’ve just read about some very interesting work regarding influenza that hasn’t even been published yet and is currently under review. This work is causing a huge amount of controversy because of the implications it could have if published. The study was conducted by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, in which he managed to create an H5N1 flu virus capable of host-to-host transmission, which if you’ve read my previous post, you’ll know is the main thing stopping that strain of Avian Flu becoming a pandemic.

Fouchier’s work looked to create a virus capable of transmission between hosts; obviously he can’t use humans, so he used ferrets which are the closest model available to study the virus. He first attempted to create mutations to the virus which he thought would allow host-to-host transmission but was unsuccessful in this approach. He then moved on to the tried and tested method of simply passing the virus from one ferret to another over and over again. This passaging process causes the virus to adapt and make it better at transmitting between hosts. After only 10 generations, the virus had become airborne and could pass from one ferret to another simply by them being in close proximity to one another. Subsequent analysis of this new mutant form of the virus showed that only five changes had been made to its DNA, and these affected just two proteins. What’s more worrying about this is that all five of these mutations have been seen in nature, just never all five in the same virus.

Herein lies the controversy: this man-made virus, in theory, has the ability to spread from person-to-person and it is estimated that it could kill over half the global population as a result! If the work is published and the mutations are freely available for anyone to view, it is not too difficult for anyone to re-create this virus and use it for a bioterrorist attack, for instance. This work has started the ball rolling on an intense debate over scientific freedom and whether so called ‘dual-research’ (research which has the potential for good and evil, for want of better terms) should be published. The good that comes from this work is twofold: firstly we will be able to look for these mutations in the wild and get a very rapid response if it ever looks like the virus may form, thereby potentially limiting its fatality, and secondly by having the virus in the lab we will be able to study it and look for novel ways to treat it if ever it does form. The ‘evil,’ as mentioned above, is the possibility of bioterrorism.

Personally, I feel that the work should be published. With the information available about the mutations that are key to allowing it to spread, we will be better able to understand the virus and find novel ways to deal with it, should we ever have to. Yes, there is a risk of the information getting into the wrong hands but if we are able to find ways to deal with a natural form of this virus then we will also be able to deal with a man-made form. Science doesn’t move forward without a risk or two along the way.

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