FLASHBACK - Experimenting with a new Spanish flu is everybody’s business | WHAT REALLY HAPPENED X-Frame-Options: DENY X-Frame-Options: SAMEORIGIN

FLASHBACK - Experimenting with a new Spanish flu is everybody’s business

There may be a fatal tumour in your brain. The only way we’ll know is if I cut it open – but there’s a chance that might kill you. Shall I go ahead?

We’ve just been confronted with a question a bit like this by scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They insist the only way to guard against the outbreak of a deadly flu epidemic like the Spanish flu of 1918 is to create viruses very similar to those responsible. Not to study them in the wild, mind, but to actively engineer from bird flu genes a strain that can pass in airborne droplets from one animal – or perhaps species – to another. Sure, it is dangerous. But what about the risk of doing nothing?

Not according to Sir Robert May, one of the world’s most respected epidemiologists. Publicly he has called the work “absolutely crazy”, and given May’s reputation for directness his private opinion is likely to be less polite. He’s not alone. Other researchers have challenged the claims of the Wisconsin team that their work is the only way to find out how to combat a lethal flu outbreak effectively, and that the experiments were deemed necessary and safe by experts. May even suggests that the team effectively hoodwinked the US National Institutes of Health into granting approval and funding.

Research on pathogens, particularly viruses, has become increasingly disputatious over the past decade. In 2002 a team at the State University of New York ordered pieces of synthetic DNA through the mail, from which they pasted together the genome of the polio virus. They then “booted it up” to infect mice, explaining that the work had been done to highlight the risk of how easy it was. Others accused the team of an irresponsible publicity stunt. The Wisconsin team, led by the virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, courted controversy in 2012 when it created a mutant strain of H5N1 bird flu that could spread among mammals. Its results, and similar ones from a team in the Netherlands, were deemed too dangerous to publish by a US biosecurity panel that feared what bioterrorists might do with them.

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