By tweaking the H5N1 bird flu virus a bit, a Netherlands-based virologist and his crew have created a highly contagious version that, if ever unleashed upon the general population, could kill millions of us. But don't fret! Their research, like that one Rolling Stones documentary, hasn't been released to the public. At least not yet, anyway.
Developed by Erasmus Medical Centre virologist Ron Fouchier and his crew as part of the scientific community's efforts to understand what the hell H5N1 is all about, the strain is reportedly different from regular bird flu in that it's easily transmittable between humans. Fouchier presented his findings to the scientific community in September at a flu conference in Malta (did you go?) and now seeks formal publication of his research, but his work has been held up by scientists who are worried about the virus being released into the general public or falling into the hands of bioterrorists.
The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is currently reviewing Fouchier's work—not to prevent it from being published, because they don't have that kind of power, but to explain how the research could pose a biothreat. The board is also reviewing similar research on H5N1 produced by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Tokyo.
How do scientists really feel about this new and improved H5N1? Well, some scientists believe that releasing the research will improve biosecurity. Some believe the strain isn't as lethal as others claim. NSABB chairman Paul Keim told Daily Mail that he "can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one." And Thomas Ingelsby of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh told New Scientist that "[t]he benefits of publishing this work do not outweigh the dangers of showing others how to replicate it."