New Zealand scientist calls for end to transmissible H5N1 studies

A New Zealand scientist is calling for permanent restrictions on the research similar to the kind that led to the development of strains of H5N1 bird flu transmissible in humans that could kill half of the world's population.

Two independent teams from the Netherlands and the United States recently completed experiments that demonstrated how easily such strains could be produced. Experts fear that the newly created strains could be released by mistake, or on purpose by terrorists, despots or doomsday cults.

"Up to 60 per cent of people could die," Dr. Robert Webster, a New Zealand influenza expert working in Tennessee, said, reports. "That would be one of the greatest catastrophes that's ever occurred."

Avian influenza ignited mass fears when it first emerged four years ago. Only 600 people have been infected worldwide, but more than half of those who contracted the illness died.

Webster said that the recent research has raised many issues regarding the role of research and its potential use by bioterrorists.

"You have to look at historical records," Webster said, according to "There was anthrax in the US and the threat in Australia of someone bringing in foot and mouth disease. There are crazy people doing crazy things."

The New Zealand expert also noted that naturally occurring bird flu remains a threat that must be taken seriously, especially considering how fast it mutates.

"H5N1 is still out there in nature, killing people occasionally," Webster said, according to "The difficulty is H5N1 keeps changing like the seasonal flu changes."