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We all have previously learned about the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, which killed between 20-40 million people worldwide in our history classes. Now with the advance of modern molecular biology techniques, it is entirely possible to create a new "killer virus" with the potential of igniting another global pandemic.

That's exactly what virologist Ron Fouchier and his team from the Netherlands did, and now they want to publish their results. By publishing how they succeeded in creating a new highly virulent flu strain (an altered strain of H5N1 that is easily transmissible via aerosol between ferrets), this scientific knowledge may inspire additional attempts to recreate this strain for bioterrorism acts.

Dual-use research has been debated for its usefulness to modern society; is it worth the risk of an accidental outbreak when it could potentially lead to the development of life-saving vaccines? The definition of dual-use is research that may offer some public health benefit, but could also be used for more sinister purposes such as bioterrorism.

As a molecular microbiologist who has previously worked with several dangerous pathogens, I have encountered many research projects that could be considered dual-use or, in more common terms, "a double-edged sword." Some examples include filovirus virulence studies, using non-human primates (NHP) to determine the lethal dose of a specific strain of Ebola or Marburg virus. Without truly understanding the disease mechanism and pathogenesis of a dangerous organism, it is difficult to construct a vaccine without a specific target to address.

In that respect, I support what Dr. Fouchier and his team attempted; however, it would depend whether their facility has extremely tight security and stringent laboratory protocols to prevent any mishaps. In this regard, my expectations and those of the international scientific community should be that this H5N1 strain be stored and worked on within a biosafety-level 4 (BSL-4) facility; the highest bio-containment designation for infectious diseases.

With the potential for a possible outbreak of this virulent airborne H5N1 strain and with research being conducted with other potentially pandemic viruses, an international risk assessment system was previously proposed in order to approve experiments that may be considered "dangerous" to public health. However, these efforts thankfully failed to develop, allowing researchers more scientific freedom, since most countries do not have formal regulations to review studies before they begin. On the contrary, the U.S. has several institutional review boards who may approve or deny an experiment from starting depending on several factors, such as whether the study has been previously conducted, budget costs, animal safety, and scientific relevance, to name a few.

While scientific freedom has always been the main goal for many, it is entirely the researchers' and the host facility's responsibility to ensure that the proper bio-containment protocols are in place before, during and after the research is completed. At the same time, it is the international scientific community’s and the general public's responsibility to make sure all questions are asked and answered in satisfactory detail regarding the overall safety of public health when experimenting with potentially pandemic viruses. While the international scientific community can verify these details via internal review boards and possibly even the formerly proposed risk assessment system, non-scientific individuals within the general public do have a chance to ask questions online via scientific ethics communities. One specific website called the OEC (Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Research) provides specific cases and scenarios of questionable scientific ethics for study. Another community, the Union of Concerned Scientists, tackles scientific integrity issues while also providing information how awareness can be made of specific issues.

Although this specific H5N1 example is being touted as the "next possible pandemic flu," bacterial and viral genetic studies have always been investigated ever since Watson and Crick described the structure of DNA. As long as these bio-containment protocols are (hopefully) in effect, the general public need not worry.

In conclusion, while some people may denounce Dr. Fouchier's H5N1 work and demand that it should never have occurred in the first place, I, for one, applaud his creativity and determination in order to unlock clues about H5N1 virulence that were previously unknown. With these ground-breaking virulence studies, we are better-equipped and more knowledgeable about which genetic targets to pursue for future vaccine construction experiments. The ultimate key for success lies in conducting these experiments in safety, under the correct corresponding conditions and bio-containment facilities.


Original posting by ChaseTheMorning on Dec 1, 2011 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=672

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