In mid-September last year at the fourth annual European Scientific Working group on Influenza meeting in Malta, Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, gave a presentation on some experiments his lab had performed with the H5N1 virus, better known as the avian flu virus. Fouchier’s team, supported in part by U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), had been running experiments with ferrets, which, like humans, can also fall prey to bird flu.
The Dutch team’s aim was to create a more powerful and easily transmitted version of the avian flu, a goal that on the face of it seems disquieting and unnecessary: H5N1 as it occurs naturally already is highly potent when it passes from birds to humans. According to a FAQ on Nature’s Avian Flu website, of 169 people who contracted the disease in the outbreak that roiled Asia from January 2004 to March 2007, 168 died. Estimates of average mortality vary, but it’s generally thought that avian flu proves fatal to 50-60% of those who catch it. By contrast, in modern times the plague kills only 5-15% of those it infects, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
It’s no wonder, then, that when H5N1 has moved out of bird populations into human ones, the WHO has issued pandemic warnings that have, in turn, spawned near hysteria among the mainstream media and public. One estimate of the economic impact of the 2004-2006 outbreak of the disease put the cost of dealing with it at $10 billion.
It was perhaps due to harrowing memories of that multi-year effort to control H5N1 that as word of Fouchier’s work spread beyond the realm of elite virus researchers, concerns that this was not just your run-of-the-mill biological experiment began to rise.
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