World is at risk

With scientists undertaking controversial flu virus experiments

Published: Tuesday 31 August 2004

scientists may open the Pandora's box if they are given the go-ahead to create a new form of the flu virus. This is the grim message of an article published recently in the acclaimed journal Science (Vol 305, No 5684, July 30, 2004). The article ponders over the repercussions of experiments soon to be undertaken to combine the genetic material of the fatal Asian bird flu virus with that of its equally lethal human counterpart.

The controversial research is being undertaken as scientists and public health workers worldwide are concerned that the bird flu virus could coalesce with its human form, creating an 'immortal' variety. If this happens, the world would face a pandemic that could kill millions. As per some experts, particularly those from the World Health Organization (who), the only way to avert the crisis is to combine both the viruses in the laboratory, and then comprehensively study the new organism.

Many are planning such an investigation. In fact, in 2000, the us Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc) had started experiments to create the crossover, but these were suspended when cdc's flu researchers were overwhelmed by sars. The agency plans to resume the work shortly. Others countries too are exploring the option. Virologist Albert Osterhaus of the Erasmus University in the Netherlands is eager to experiment on a range of bird flu strains. Researchers from uk's Health Protection Agency and the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control are also discussing the idea.

As per the article, these pursuits may spell ruin. "There is a high risk of the virus escaping the laboratory. Moreover, the published results of these experiments might help those who want to unleash a pandemic on purpose," Mark Wheelis, a researcher at the us-based University of California, was quoted as saying. But who's principal flu scientist Klaus Stohr downplays these concerns: "You cannot create a monster. But it's a monster that nature could produce. Therefore, it is necessary to conduct the experiments."

Critics beg to differ. "Though most countries have a system to review the safety and ethical aspect of run-of-the mill scientific studies, none have formal panels to weigh studies that could put the entire world at risk or be of potential help to bioterrorists," they assert. As per flu researcher Karl Nicholson of the University of Leicester, the uk, there should be a more formal, global consensus on the necessity of studies and who should conduct them. But even in this regard, who's attitude seems to be lax. "Studies have been discussed widely with scientists in who's global flu lab network. The existing safeguards are sufficient enough," asserts Stohr. Time will only tell whether he is right or not. If not, then the world will be in a fix.

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