If Vegas took bets on the next worldwide pandemic, the safe money might be on H5N1, better known as the bird flu. Since 2003, the H5N1 virus has killed 340 of the 578 people with confirmed infections. The 1 percent mortality from seasonal flu pales in comparison to H5N1’s deadliness.
Thankfully, humans only catch H5N1 from birds. Since it’s not spread from person to person, a worldwide outbreak has never occurred. Some questioned whether an airborne bird flu virus was even possible.
In a highly controversial move, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands have answered that question by genetically engineering a contagious version of H5N1.
Many feared that the results of this work would be used by terrorists to unleash an epidemic or that an infected lab worker could do the same accidentally.
But before the results could be published, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that researchers withhold the full results of the study. The researchers responded by placing a 60-day moratorium on their research.
Even though biosecurity concerns inspired the recommendations, fears of terrorism are probably overblown; experts say the sophistication required to make a virus from scratch makes a terrorist-borne epidemic unlikely.
Furthermore, a virus knows no borders, meaning a terrorist group could not specifically target enemies. The bigger concern is that an infected lab worker could start an accidental outbreak.
This is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In 2004, two graduate students were infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in their Beijing lab. They spread the infection to seven other people, one of whom died.
In a separate incident, a single physician sparked a global SARS outbreak by passing it to others staying on his floor at a Hong Kong hotel.