THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: A couple of weeks ago, hundreds of chicken died of an unknown cause at a private poultry farm in Andippetti, leading to a total ban in Idukki on chicken raised in Theni. The after-effects of this was felt in the poultry farms of Gudalur, Cumbum and nearby villages in Tamil Nadu.
Just about the same time, Bhubaneswar began the culling of birds in selected wards, where bird flu was suspected. Fear of bird flu also gripped Meghalaya after hundreds of pigeons were found dead, with no particular cause.
If a normal bird flu can raise such an alarm, imagine the mayhem that might be created when scientists will announce the birth of a modified lethal bird flu virus, that can transmit readily between mammals.
Two groups of scientists in different parts of the world have brewed up variants of the H5N1 virus that could become a doomsday virus if released accidentally. These two groups led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are all set to publish their results in two of the best scientific journals in the world, ‘Nature’ and ‘Science.’
Publishing this could best be compared with opening the proverbial Pandora’s Box, argue many scientists, who fear that this tweaked virus might wipe out millions of people from the face of the planet. However, researchers say their work would prevent just that - now the world would know what to look out for. Fouchier also felt that the findings would actually help in treating disease and creating a vaccine.
While the debate was still on, alarm bells started ringing. The advisers to the US Government and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) have asked both the journals, ‘Science’ and ‘Nature’, to withhold the most significant details. This is to prevent the information going to the wrong hands and being used as a bio-weapon for possible bio-terrorism.
They argued that the risks posed by such studies, possibility of misuse and accidental release outweigh the benefits. Based on the frequency of accidental releases of microbes that have happened in the past and also on the number of labs working on this virus, bio-safety experts are of the opinion that the virus will escape into the environment in four years.
Ron Fouchier and colleagues used a mutant H5N1 virus and studied it on ferrets, that are closely related to polecats. The virus picked up more mutations, which allowed it to spread through air like ordinary flu, but lethal. Yoshihiro Kawaoka and team put mammal-friendly mutations on the virus. They too spread easily through ferrets. However, the new work does not show what the modified virus will do in humans.
While the risk versus benefits discussions continue the world over, the mutated lethal viruses are sitting pretty in their respective labs, ticking away to an unforeseen ambiguous future.