H5N1 flu virus could put millions at risk
Scientist briefs Senate Homeland Security Committee on potential threat
Thomas Inglesby, CEO and director of the Center for Biosecurity of the
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, asked the Senate Homeland
Security Committee last week. The result would be millions dead and even
more at risk for contracting the deadly flu.
"The case fatality rate of wild H5N1 in the WHO database is nearly 60 percent, as you indicated. So if a strain of H5N1 with that fatality rate were engineered to spread like seasonal flu, hundreds of millions of people's lives would be at risk. Even a strain a hundred times less fatal would place at risk millions of people's lives."
Concern has grown recently over advances in the field of biotechnology, in which scientists have created synthetic viruses in laboratories.
Inglesby says that mistakes can be made in laboratories, like the one in 1977 when "H1N1 caused a mini-pandemic, probably from a lab escape.
"Nine years ago during SARS, there were at least three incidents in which researchers working in BL-3 or BL-4 labs in Singapore, Taiwan and China accidentally infected themselves with SARS," Inglesby said. "We have to factor the possibility of human error, surprise and accidents into our calculations of the risk of this research," he added.
Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Americans have the right to expect that their money, which funds scientific research intended for the "common good," will not be used to facilitate terrorism.
Collins says research done by the National Institutes of Health and conducted in Wisconsin and the Netherlands, is expected to be published in two academic journals.
The National Science Advisory Board for National Security, a government advisory board, recommended in December that part of the information be withheld for security reasons. The board has since reversed that decision, advocating full publication of the research done in Wisconsin and a revised paper on the research performed in the Netherlands.
The board's decision and reversal "have been part of a larger debate within the scientific and national security communities, and there are important arguments being made on both sides," Collins said.
"When the American people pay for scientific research intended for the common good, they have a right to expect that their money will not be used to facilitate terrorism. These are not hypothetical threats," Collins added.
"Before he was killed, Anwar al-Awlaki reportedly sought poisons to attack the United States. Adding to these concerns, the new leader of al Qaeda has a medical background. Therefore, he may have an even greater interest in pursuing chemical and biological terrorism," she said.
Collins acknowledged, however, that "there is a legitimate concern about government censorship that could chill academic freedom and scientific inquiry or even limit the sharing of information necessary to save lives or improve public health."
"Can we assure this research won't be replicated and deliberately misused? No. We can hope no potential adversary will have the competence or the intention to pursue this. But we can't accurately predict their chances this work will be replicated by a malevolent or disaffected scientist somewhere in the world, or a terrorist group, or nation state," Inglesby said.
© 2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM
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