Avian flu experiment raises bioterror concerns

Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist and an expert on the avian flu, has come under scrutiny due to concerns that his research may fall into the wrong hands.
Kawaoka is an eminent professor of virology at the School of Veterinary Medicine who has done research on the avian bird flu, also known as H5N1. The scrutiny on Kawaoka came after he created a contagion virus in his lab as part of his research, the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel reports. The research on the virus was compared to the work done by Ron Fouchier, a Dutch scientist of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, who developed a man-made H5N1 influenza strain that was genetically altered to easily transmit between ferrets.
"The research by the Kawaoka and Fouchier teams set out to answer a question that has long puzzled scientists," a report detailing Fouchier's work said, according to the journal Science. "Does H5N1, which rarely causes human disease, have the potential to trigger a pandemic?"
Terry Devitt, a UW spokesman, said that Science magazine had not seen Kawaoka's research and calling the research equal to Fouchier's work is a mistake. He also said that Kawaoka's work was no longer under review by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.
"We have comprehensive and stringent biosafety and biosecurity measures in place," Devitt said, according to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. "Those measures are constantly reviewed and updated. Also, the university is subject to federal oversight of work with this and other agents, including unannounced inspections."
In an editorial published by the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the leaders of the facility expressed concern about the research.
"Publishing the methods for transforming the H5N1 virus into a highly transmissible strain would show other scientists around the world how to do it in their own labs," the editorial said, according to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. "One concern is the possibility that the strain would be recreated for malevolent purposes. Even disregarding this risk (which we shouldn't), scientific publication would encourage others that this is a research initiative worthy of additional exploration. . . . Whether this experiment is published or not, it is a reminder of the power of biology and its potential. We need new approaches for the rapid development of large quantities of medicines or vaccines to protect us against new emerging viruses. But engineering highly transmissible strains of avian flu is not the way to get us there."