Scientists demonstrates how to turn H5N1 into bioweapon

Scientists and security specialists are currently debating whether or not to release the results of a study that demonstrates how a strain of H5N1 bird flu could be made more contagious.

In recent years, the H5N1 virus has infected approximately 500 people. It has killed half of those it has infected but has remained localized because it does not pass easily from person to person. If the disease were to evolve to spread like a more common seasonal flu, the effect could be a devastating global pandemic, according to NPR.

In order to stay a step ahead of the virus, scientists have been modifying its genes to learn more about how it works.

At a conference in Malta, a researcher announced that he had been able to produce an experiment that made the virus highly contagious in ferrets, which are used as a model to study human infections. It only took five mutations to achieve the desired effect.

Dr. Thomas Inglesby, a bioterrorism expert and director of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said that the process used to increase the potency of H5N1 should remain out of public view.

"It's just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus. And it's a second bad idea for them to publish how they did it so others can copy it," Inglesby said, NPR reports.

Although biological research has a culture of openness, scientist report their processes and findings so that their results can be proven by others. This experiment has yet to be published, and many believe it never should be.

"There are some cases that I think are worth an exception to that otherwise very important scientific principle," Inglesby said, according to NPR. "I can only imagine that the process of deliberating about the publication of these findings is quite serious."

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a committee of independent experts set up by the U.S. government to give advice on research that could be potentially misused, is currently debating the issue. Its decisions are non-binding.

Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, the lead researcher on the H5N1 experiment, said that he prefers not to comment on his intentions until after the board issues a formal decision.