Dutch scientists to resume weaponising bird flu — but why?

Little more than a year ago I posted an article entitled “Dutch scientists have weaponised bird flu — but why?

And then, one week later, the research project was abruptly halted:

Scientists who created a potentially more deadly bird flu strain have temporarily stopped their research amid fears it could be used by terrorists.

In a letter published in Science and Nature, the teams call for an “international forum” to debate the risks and value of the studies.1

One of the concerns then being highlighted was the intention of the Erasmus Medical Center, the group behind the research, to make their findings public:

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended key details be omitted from publication of the research, which sparked international furore.

“I would have preferred if this hadn’t caused so much controversy, but it has happened and we can’t change that,” Ron Fouchier, a researcher from Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, told Science Insider.

“So I think it’s the right step to make.”

So now apparently we had two controversies. A more academic one concerning the rights and wrongs of censoring scientific publications, and the other one about whether creating “a potentially more deadly bird flu strain” is a good idea in the first instance. In any case, concerns about the research had effectively forced a voluntary 60-day moratorium:

But some said the 60-day pause on research was not enough.

One critic of the studies, Richard Ebright, a biologist at Rutgers University, told Science Insider that the letter “includes flatly false statements” making assurances about the safety of H1N1 research labs.

Reports say that a meeting debating the research and steps forward could come during a World Health Organization meeting in February.

Click here to read the full article on the BBC news website.

With research on hold, “publication was [also] delayed for several months after a US agency expressed concern that it might be useful to bioterrorists”. That delay lasted until May:

[Eventually] the US government and the journals Science and Nature agreed that the papers from teams in Rotterdam and Wisconsin [the other institute involved] should be published in full.

And so they were:

Last month Nature published its H5N1 research and now that’s been followed by a series of papers in the journal Science.

Together they set out the potential threat of an H5N1 pandemic and how to prepare for it.

My colleague Pallab Ghosh has a summary of the Science research which you can read here.2

[In fact, you probably can’t read that particular summary because the link seems to have failed.]

These extracts are taken from a BBC news report by Fergus Walsh, someone who seems intent on playing down the worries about the research itself and keener to emphasise the likely prospects of a future flu pandemic:

The potential for a pandemic of avian flu is considered by the World Health Organisation as one of the greatest potential threats to global health.

So is the world a safer or a more dangerous place now that these papers have been published?

The journals involved argue this data will allow scientists to monitor the threat from avian flu and work on preparations for a potential pandemic. That view is widely shared among scientists.

And on the same day, BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh wrote a companion piece also highlighting dangers of a bird flu pandemic:

The H5N1 bird flu virus could change into a form able to spread rapidly between humans, scientists have warned.

Researchers have identified five genetic changes that could allow the virus to start a deadly pandemic.

Writing in the journal Science, they say it would be theoretically possible for these changes to occur in nature.3

Which has always remained the justification given by those scientists undertaking the research: that the study will help them and others to “learn which viruses can cause pandemics and by knowing that we might be able to prevent them by enforcing strict eradication programmes”. But should we not be concerned that as a direct consequence of their research such a strain has now been artificially mutated and so presumably already exists.

In the next part of Pallab Ghosh’s article, we come to what many (myself included) see as the most troubling part of the whole exercise – it appears as a bold subheading that instantly puts the research back into more chilling context:


It is the first time it has been shown that it is possible for bird flu to become airborne, but the research team was unable to determine precisely how likely this was to happen.

Prof Derek Smith, who led the analysis, said more information was needed.

He said researchers required a better understanding of how flu viruses were transmitted between people in order to develop a clearer idea of the likelihood of the emergence of an airborne strain of bird flu.

“These are difficult things to find out,” Prof Smith told BBC News.

“What this work enables us to do is to prioritise particular experiments to obtain this information”.

And yet the very next statement in the same article then immediately raises more questions about the supposed value of the research whilst simultaneously coming as a great relief:

It is clear though that the emergence of an airborne mutation of H5N1 is unlikely. Were it not it would have emerged already.

I have highlighted this in bold because, to my admittedly untrained eye, it already contains a rather significant answer to the question they are supposed to be trying to answer — that any naturally occurring variant is unlikely to be a highly dangerous “airborne mutation”. So what is the point of the research, again…? Back to Ghosh’s article:

But researchers want to be able to calculate the risk of such a virus emerging more precisely in order to help public health officials in their contingency planning.

Is this really a good enough reason?

Click here to read the full article by Pallab Ghosh.

All of which brings me to the latest BBC news report, which was published yesterday [Jan 23rd] and entitled “Controversial bird flu work resumes”. Apparently, the moratorium, which had initially been set at 60-days, and then was later extended to a year, is finally over:

Controversial research into making bird flu easier to spread in people is to resume after a year-long pause.

Some argue the research is essential for understanding how viruses spread and could be used to prevent deadly pandemics killing millions of people.

Research was stopped amid fierce debate including concerns about modified viruses escaping the laboratory or being used for terrorism.

The moratorium gave authorities time to fully assess the safety of the studies.4

Click here to read the full BBC news report.

So is it regarded as safe to continue the research then? What do most experts think now, and following a year’s consideration? Back to the article:

[Other] scientists said the risk of the virus spreading was too great for such research to take place and described it as a folly.

That sounds like the same opinion as before – yet surely if the research is about to be resumed there must now be a consensus in favour…?

“This research is urgent, while we are having this pause bird flu virus continues to evolve in nature and we need to continue this research.

“We cannot wait for another year or two years.”

And who says so?

“One of the leading proponents of the research Prof Ron Fouchier, from the Erasmus Medical Centre”

But do other leading experts, and in light of whatever debate has taken place during the year long moratorium, now concur with the assessment of Professor Fouchier?

Prof Robert May, from the University of Oxford and a former president of The Royal Society, said: “These are not bad people, they are good people with good intentions, but they look through rose-coloured glasses at the security of the laboratories.”

He said past history suggests “it will get out” as there had been more than a thousand cases of people being infected in labs with the highest standards and the 1977 outbreak of flu may have been connected to a Russian facility.

“That’s why I feel the world is a safer place if we maintain this moratorium.”

So no then…


1 From an article entitled “Bioterror fears halt research on mutant bird flu” published by BBC news on January 20, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-16662346

2 From an article entitled “Five genetic changes that could allow bird flu pandemic” written by Fergus Walsh, published by BBC news on June 21, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/18541433

3 From an article entitled “Bird flu ‘could mutate to cause deadly human pandemic’” written by Pallab Ghosh, published by BBC news on June 21, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18534676

4 From an article entitled “Controversial bird flu work resumes” written by James Gallagher, published by BBC news on January 23, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-21165288

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