Alarm as Dutch lab creates highly contagious killer flu

Fear of terrorism as university prepares to publish key details

A deadly strain of bird flu with the potential to infect and kill millions of people has been created in a laboratory by European scientists – who now want to publish full details of how they did it.

The discovery has prompted fears within the US Government that the knowledge will fall into the hands of terrorists wanting to use it as a bio-weapon of mass destruction.

Some scientists are questioning whether the research should ever have been undertaken in a university laboratory, instead of at a military facility.

The US Government is now taking advice on whether the information is too dangerous to be published.

To see the graphic: The last outbreak - A deadly virus even before the latest twist

"The fear is that if you create something this deadly and it goes into a global pandemic, the mortality and cost to the world could be massive," a senior scientific adviser to the US Government told The Independent, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The worst-case scenario here is worse than anything you can imagine."

For the first time the researchers have been able to mutate the H5N1 strain of avian influenza so that it can be transmitted easily through the air in coughs and sneezes. Until now, it was thought that H5N1 bird flu could only be transmitted between humans via very close physical contact.

Dutch scientists carried out the controversial research to discover how easy it was to genetically mutate H5N1 into a highly infectious "airborne" strain of human flu. They believe that the knowledge gained will be vital for the development of new vaccines and drugs.

But critics say the scientists have endangered the world by creating a highly dangerous form of flu which could escape from the laboratory – as well as opening a Pandora's box for fanatical terrorists wishing to make a bio-weapon.

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza has killed hundreds of millions of birds since it first appeared in 1996, but has so far infected only about 600 people who came into direct contact with infected poultry.

What makes H5N1 so dangerous, though, is that it has killed about 60 per cent of those it has infected, making it one of the most lethal known forms of influenza in modern history – a deadliness moderated only by its inability (so far) to spread easily through airborne water droplets.

Scientists are in little doubt that the newly created strain of H5N1 – resulting from just five mutations in two key genes – has the potential to cause a devastating human pandemic that could kill tens of millions of people. The study was carried out on ferrets, which when infected with influenza are the best animal "model" of the human disease.

The details of the study are so sensitive that they are being scrutinised by the US Government's own National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which is understood to have advised American officials that key parts of the scientific paper should be redacted to prevent terrorists from using the information to reverse-engineer their own lethal strain of flu virus.

In an unprecedented move, the Biosecurity board is believed to have told the US Government that there is a serious possibility of potentially dangerous information being misused if the full genetic sequence of the mutated H5N1 virus were to be published in open scientific literature.

A senior source close to the Biosecurity board, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Independent that the National Institutes of Health, which funded the work, is about to make a decision on how much of the scientific paper on the H5N1 super strain should be published, and how much held back.

"There are areas of science where information needs to be controlled," the scientist said. "The most extreme examples are, for instance, how to make a nuclear weapon or any weapon that is going to be used primarily to kill people. The life sciences really haven't encountered this situation before. It's really a new age."

The study was carried out by a Dutch team of scientists led by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, where the mutated virus is stored under lock and key, but without armed guards, in a basement building.

Dr Fouchier, who declined to answer questions until a decision is made on publication, said in a statement released on the university's website that it only took a small number of mutations to change the avian flu virus into a form that could spread more easily between humans.

"We have discovered that this is indeed possible, and more easily than previously thought. In the laboratory, it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol-transmissible virus that can easily be rapidly spread through the air," Dr Fouchier said. "This process could also take place in a natural setting.

"We know which mutation to watch for in the case of an outbreak and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late. Furthermore, the finding will help in the timely development of vaccinations and medication."

A second, independent team of researchers led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the universities of Wisconsin and Tokyo is understood to have carried out similar work with similar results, which has underlined how easy it is to create the super virus with a combination of deliberate mutations and random genetic changes brought about by passing avian flu manually from the nose of one ferret to another.

Some scientists have privately questioned whether such research should have been done in a university department that does not have the sophisticated anti-terrorist security of a military facility. They also point out that experimental viruses kept in seemingly secure laboratories have escaped in the past to cause human epidemics – such as a 1977 flu outbreak.

"There are people who say that the work should never have been done, or if it was done it should have been done in a setting where the information could be better controlled," said the source close to the biosecurity board.

"With influenza now it is possible to reverse engineer the virus. It's pretty common technology in many parts of the world. With the genomic sequence, you can reconstruct it. That's where the information is dangerous," he said.

"It's scary from a number of different angles. You want to have the vaccines and therapeutics in place, and you need to have a much information as you can about a particular virus, but you also worry about it from a biosecurity perspective."

Profile: researcher behind the science

Ron Fouchier

The Dutch virologist started as an expert in HIV, having received his PhD from the University of Amsterdam in 1995. After research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, he began a new career in the virology department at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, studying the molecular biology of the influenza A virus.

At a conference in Malta in September, he described his work as something that was "really, really stupid," but ultimately useful for the development of vaccines.

Steve Connor: The quest for knowledge can be a dangerous thing

Leading article: A little biotech knowledge may be a catastrophic thing

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot