The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

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.

Given that flu research is housed at large universities, not in remote locations, the ease with which the disease can spread is pretty terrifying. These risks outweigh the very real potential benefits of this research.

Some scientists disagree, citing similar research performed on the 1918 flu virus, which allowed researchers to show that the virus was susceptible to existing vaccines and medications. This essentially nixed the risk of a terrorist attack using the 1918 flu.

Scientists on both sides could probably agree that the handling of this situation has been poor. It didn’t make sense to stop the publication of research after the findings have already been presented at an academic conference, as was the case with the Wisconsin researchers’ study. The response was too little, too late.

Large research universities like UNC should work to establish a better system for weighing the risks and rewards of a given project before research begins. Reforms should come from large funding organizations like the National Institutes of Health.

Most would argue that infectious disease research is invaluable and has the potential to save millions of lives. But it would be disastrous if it ever did the opposite.

Andrew Moon is a columnist from The Daily Tar Heel. He is a graduate student in the Gillings School of Public Health from Durham. Contact him at moon@med.unc.edu.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.