Dutch researchers who developed a deadly strain of bird flu to help create vaccines have been told their research is a terrorist threat.
Scientists have for the first time been able to mutate the H5N1 strain of avian influenza so that it can be transmitted easily through the air.
Previously it was thought that H5N1 bird flu could only be transmitted between humans if they came into very close physical contact.
The research team of the Erasmus Medical in Rotterdam was hoping their work would help with the development of drugs and vaccines to counter mutations of the disease.
However, the groundbreaking investigation may never see the light of day amid fears that it could be used to develop a biological weapon.
Last month it was reported that there were fears the modified strain of the H5N1 virus is more dangerous than anthrax.
At the time, virologist Ron Fouchier admitted the strain is “one of the most dangerous viruses you can make”, but is still adamant he wants to publish a paper describing how it was done.
The findings had been due to be published in the American journal Science, but the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is now reviewing the paper to assess whether it should be blocked from publication.
One senior scientific advisor to the U.S. Government was last night quoted as saying: “The fear is that if you create something this deadly and it goes into a global pandemic the mortality and cost to the world could be massive. The worst-case scenario here is worse than anything you can imagine.”
The mutated virus is being stored under lock and key in a basement building at the centre in Rotterdam, but is without armed guards.
Dr. Ron Fouchier, who led the study, said that by experimenting on ferrets, whose immune system is very similar to humans, it is possible to create a highly-infectious strain through just a few mutations.
The decision on whether the findings should be published has divided academics as well as security specialists.
Thomas Inglesby, of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, told the New Scientist: “The benefits of publishing this work do not outweigh the dangers of showing other how to replicate it.”
Some critics have said that the research should never have been carried out because there is a risk that the dangerous form of flu could escape from the laboratory.
But Dr. Ron Fouchier defended the experiment, saying: “We know which mutation to watch for in the case of an outbreak and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late. Furthermore, the finding will help in the timely development of vaccinations and medication.”
A second team of independent researchers at the universities of Wisconsin and Tokyo have carried out a similar study and are thought to have found similar results, which show how easy it is to create a more contagious strain.
The H5N1 strain of bird flu is fatal in 60% of human cases, but its spread has been limited because it is not passed between humans easily.
It has led to the deaths of millions of birds, but has only killed around 300 people since 2003.
There are more than a dozen strains of bird flu in the wild. The most virulent are H5 and H7, while the H5N1 subtype is the deadliest.
Scientists have previously warned that H5N1 could mutate into a new, deadly form of human flu.
Paul Keim, chairman of NSABB, said: “I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one. I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”
Traditionally scientific research has always been open so that fellow scientists can review the work of others and repeat their methods to try and learn from them.
But numerous scientists have said they believe research on the avian flu should be suppressed.
However bio-defense and flu expert Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said the work carried out was medically important.
He added he could not discuss the papers because he was a member of NSABB but said if they were published certain information could be withheld and made available to those who really need to know.
“We don’t want to give bad guys a road map on how to make bad bugs really bad,” Michael Osterholm said.