Think of Dr Frankenstein’s worst nightmare in the making, and then multiply it by a few millions. That’s the unstoppable killing machine scientists in the US and the Netherlands have created by developing a highly transmissible super-strain of the H5N1 bird flu virus that can infect millions in minutes. Popularly referred to as the “armageddon virus”, this lab-made strain of bird flu has been called “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make” by its creators because of its ability to spreads easily between humans and kill faster than all other flu viruses known in recent human history.
The research shows that H5N1 is just five mutations in two genes away from turning into a highly-infectious killer swarm. The new mutated virus is expected to improve genetic surveillance of H5N1strains in birds and animals for virus mutations as an early warning alert to a potential human pandemic. Since the research focuses on what it takes to convert bird flu which can kill more than half of those infected but does not spread easily into a highly contagious virus, the knowledge is also expected to help in vaccine and drug development.
Yet critics argue that the public health benefits of such a findings are little compared to the threat of a pandemic should virus escape the lab, whether accidentally or intentionally. That bio-terror is a big concern is clear from the red flag raised by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which prompted the US government last month to ask the international journals Science and Nature to publish only the broad conclusions of the two studies and not give the scientific details to ensure the work was not copied and used by terrorists in search of a biological weapon.
The journals and the authors agreed to do that, in turn requesting the US government and the World Health Organisation to ensure the data reached all public-health officials who could put it to practical use to track emerging pandemics and develop counter-measures in the form drugs and vaccines. But it’s easier said than done.
Health systems — especially in resource-restrained countries such as India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Egypt, where the virus now exists in the wild throughout the year — do not have the infrastructure needed to track and kill the virus. At best, the surveillance and vaccination of infected animals is patchy. In most of these countries, it is also largely focused on detecting and controlling outbreaks, with few viral samples being collected and sequenced, which needs to be done real-time to identify a mutation quickly enough to stop a pandemic. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that even if the governments are willing, with current resources, it would take at least a decade to stamp out the virus from these countries.
Some, however, point out that similar fears — raised six years ago when another team of scientists recreated the Spanish flu virus that killed up to 50 million in 1918 — proved groundless. And the threat of the H5N1 bird flu virus turning into a pandemic that killed hundreds of millions in 2005 and the H1N1 swine flu virus in 2009 proved groundless.
The reality, as usual, is in between. Of the 573 people that have caught H5N1 from animals so far worldwide, 336 have died. That’s more than half, which makes it more lethal than most human viruses. The only thing that got in the way of more deaths was the viruses’s inability to spread easily from person to person, an armour that has now been shattered in the lab. So criticising the new findings is plain stupid. The lab grown super-flu virus indicates the worse that lies ahead and challenges us to do the best we can to contain it.