Feeds

Suppressed data on mutant H5N1 human-killer virus PUBLISHED

Information wants to be free

The Essential Guide to IT Transformation

Strains of bird flu that could spread among humans have been created in the lab - and now full details on just how this was done have been published openly, raising fears that the research could be used by terrorists to craft a deadly bio-weapon plague.

Bird flu, or H5N1, has killed more than half of the 600 people it is known to have infected, but it cannot spread easily between people. So Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison set out to find whether H5N1 could evolve in the wild into a form that was transmissible between humans.

Kawaoka’s FBI-approved team first created thousands of mutant versions of H5N1. From these they identified a version that could stick to cells in the human nose and throat and then combined this with the strain from the wild that caused the 2009 pandemic. With this hybrid virus, the scientists infected ferrets and watched for when the virus evolved a strain that could spread through the air and infect healthy ferrets in neighbouring cages.

According to Kawaoka, the study shows that relatively few mutations are required for the virus to acquire the ability to transmit between mammals, including humans. The strain created during Kawaoka’s research is less severe than the one that caused the 2009 pandemic, it is susceptible to Tamiflu and it did not kill any of the ferrets in the experiments.

But there may be further strains not studied that have the ability to evolve transmissibility. In fact, the researchers have already spotted strains with one of the mutations they identified in Egypt. As Laurence Fishburne’s character in Contagion says: “Someone doesn’t need to weaponise the bird flu. The birds are doing that.”

Kawoaka is less dramatic, claiming that the results can help authorities to prevent or prepare for an outbreak.

"This study has significant public health benefits and contributes to our understanding of this important pathogen,” he said. “By identifying mutations that facilitate transmission among mammals, those whose job it is to monitor viruses circulating in nature can look for these mutations so measures can be taken to effectively protect human health."

It is an argument made repeatedly over the past few months by Kawoaka and his colleague Ron Fouchier, a researcher at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and author of another blocked bird flu paper. Although Kawaoka’s research is now published, Fouchier’s remains under wraps, even though Science magazine has said it will publish the work. The concerns over the researchers’ studies came from the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB).

The body’s decision to block the research kickstarted months of tense discussion between virologists, security experts and journal editors. Last month, the NSABB reversed its controversial decision after Kawaoka and Fouchier amended their papers. “The revised papers had more clarity on risks and benefits,” said the NSABB’s Paul Keim, who added that the board comprises scientists, not “generals and colonels and majors”.

Fouchier admitted at an emergency conference convened in April to discuss the controversy, that most of the extra 1000 words he added to his paper dealt with the level of biosecurity in place during the research.

The Dutch virologist explained that due to the biosecurity conditions in place, if an accident were to happen, “the public won’t be exposed, but the individuals in the laboratory will be”. ®

Build a business case: developing custom apps

More from The Register

next story
14 antivirus apps found to have security problems
Vendors just don't care, says researcher, after finding basic boo-boos in security software
'Things' on the Internet-of-things have 25 vulnerabilities apiece
Leaking sprinklers, overheated thermostats and picked locks all online
iWallet: No BONKING PLEASE, we're Apple
BLE-ding iPhones, not NFC bonkers, will drive trend - marketeers
Only '3% of web servers in top corps' fully fixed after Heartbleed snafu
Just slapping a patched OpenSSL on a machine ain't going to cut it, we're told
Multipath TCP speeds up the internet so much that security breaks
Black Hat research says proposed protocol will bork network probes, flummox firewalls
How long is too long to wait for a security fix?
Synology finally patches OpenSSL bugs in Trevor's NAS
Israel's Iron Dome missile tech stolen by Chinese hackers
Corporate raiders Comment Crew fingered for attacks
Fiendishly complex password app extension ships for iOS 8
Just slip it in, won't hurt a bit, 1Password makers urge devs
Tor attack nodes RIPPED MASKS off users for 6 MONTHS
Traffic confirmation attack bared users' privates - but to whom?
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Maximize storage efficiency across the enterprise
The HP StoreOnce backup solution offers highly flexible, centrally managed, and highly efficient data protection for any enterprise.