I'll be adding current news of special interest.
The H5N1 debate concerns the publication in Nature Magazine (British) and Science Magazine (USA) of research describing how to modify the avian flu virus to enhance its airborn transmissibility between mammals. The scientists used ferrets and achieved successful airborn tranmission of H5N1. The ferret model is considered the best human-like choice for these studies. Both journals wisely put the publication of the papers on hold since the technique could be misused to produce plague-like human-strains.
AAAS Policy Alert:
H5N1 Policy Alert
The World Health Organization, after an international meeting on Feb. 16 and 17 of influenza experts, government officials, journal representatives, and a member of the NSABB, issued a consensus statement regarding the influenza A (H5N1) research.
Most people probably know this already. I am adding it for completeness.
Both papers are published (one already printed in Nature mag).
Use of a virus to act as a vector to break through body's immune system to deliver drug molecule to the affected cell is a very important breakthrough in genetic engineering and from that point of view this is perhaps amongst one of the most important developments, apart from developing a vaccine for influenza. Several popular drugs today are designed using this technology.
Yet most counter-terrorism experts agree that the next big strike by the terrorists will not be nuclear which requires large infrastructure to produce a weapon, but a biological one which is cheap, easy to obtain and does not require a very advanced lab. US itself suffered Anthrax attacks in 2001. These attacks were crude and preliminary. The effects of a large scale sophisticated bio-strike will be felt for generations.Despite such threats, no country has stopped their biological weapons program. Nor have they destroyed their existing stockpile.
Maintaining the secrecy of research programs could not stop nuclear technology from getting proliferated, even in the days when information technology was in its infancy. Today when Pentagon servers are hacked on a regular basis, how secure such information will remain is anyone's guess, WHO's concerns notwithstanding.
Ironically, should such concerns force us- the citizens, to think about such matters and bring about a large scale shift in the way new technologies are to be applied, we will need to thank the terrorists for it.
Thank You John, for posting this.
Well - Update!
Lab H5N1 not that dangerous (now; maybe)
Science 9 March 2012:
Vol. 335 no. 6073 pp. 1155-1156
(News and Analysis)
"Fouchier sparked the controversy in September 2011 when he revealed at an influenza conference in Malta that his lab had engineered H5N1 to transmit readily in mammals for the first time. Fouchier's group used the popular ferret model, and as reported in the conference newspaper, The Influenza Times, a mere five mutations made the virus transmissible. “This is very bad news, indeed,” said Fouchier in The Influenza Times account of his presentation. “This virus is airborne and as efficiently transmitted as the seasonal virus.” He made similar statements to Science in November, calling the mutant “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.”
"Fouchier criticized press accounts that suggested, as he put it, that “this virus would spread like wildfire if it would come out of our facility.” Not only did the mutant fail to spread 100% of the time, he said, animals infected via the aerosol route were not as likely to transmit the virus as ferrets infected with seasonal influenza strains that routinely spread between humans: They made copies of the virus more slowly, and the peak levels of virus were much lower. “We have to conclude that this virus does not spread yet like a pandemic or seasonal influenza virus,” Fouchier said, in contrast to what he reportedly said in Malta. He did not respond to Science's request to discuss this discrepancy. "
Science Mag. Article