Link (you might want to play some scary music while you read this):

Locked up in the bowels of the medical faculty building here and accessible to only a handful of scientists lies a man-made flu virus that could change world history if it were ever set free.

This isnt an intro to some Michael Crichton novel, its actually what some scientists have done.

Bird Flu (H5N1) mainly circulates in… birds… and rarely infects people. When it does infect people, the virus cannot hop human-to-human. That is, a human gets infected, but they cannot infect another human. Its a dead-end for the virus, and it is bad news for the infected human– mortality rate of ~50%. Its a rate you need to take with a grain of salt, as the individuals most likely to be infected are poor farmers in Asia with limited health care options, but still, with a rate that high, it is something we need to keep an eye on. If Bird Flu figured out how to be People Flu, and People have never seen a flu like Bird Flu, it could cause a LOT of trouble.

So these scientists wanted to know exactly what it would take to turn a dead-end Bird Flu infection into a Bird Flu that could be transmitted human-to-human. They found one potential genetic avenue to human transmission by passaging Bird Flu in ferrets (ferrets are the small animal model for influenza).

Neat, huh?? Scientists figured out how Nature could do something before Nature figured it out, giving us a head-start on fighting a virus that, by chance alone, will probably emerge! Imagine if we had a 10 year head-start on HIV? If the Native Americans had a heads-up on smallpox? It would have changed everything!

Unfortunately, not everyone sees this particular finding as the gift it is.

They see this finding as a weapon.

I agree somewhat– a new scary influenza would, indeed, be a weapon. A very, very stupid weapon.

‘Good’ weapons are local: A bomb you set off in Afghanistan has no effect on a cow in Nebraska.

‘Good’ weapons are self-limiting: An anthrax envelope a terrorist sends to a newscaster effects the people in contact with the envelope. It didnt hurt Osama Bin Laden.

‘Good’ weapons cant hurt you: Smallpox worked to kill the Native Americans because the Europeans had immunity to it.

Someone who wanted to release a For Real Super Scary Influenza Virus (FRSSIV) (which we are not even sure this variant of H5N1 would be) as a weapon would have to be one of those ‘Kill all humans, even me’ kind of mad scientists. A FRSSIV might be released in NYC, but it would quickly spread over the entire planet, and it would effect everyone because no one would have a vaccine/know how to fight it. You would have to be a suicidal maniac to do that.

Not that there is any shortage of suicidal maniacs on this planet. Which is another reason why we should be open about this research and allow scientists to openly study this variant. The variant was made by using a virologically ancient technique of serial passaging. Literally anyone could do this. So anyone could make a human-to-human H5N1. Including a suicidal maniac. Whether we allow scientists to study and publish on this issue or not.

Sweeping this finding under the rug, never letting the publication see the light of day, will not take away the possibility that a nut could take down the entire human population with a H5N1 variant, nor will it take way the possibility that Nature could take down the entire human population with an H5N1 variant. Shutting down this research is giving into irrational, reflexive fears, while ignoring long-term, rational concerns/benefits.


  1. #1 Kevin
    December 1, 2011

    The argument “We thought of it, but we shouldn’t do it so no one else will think of it,” is irrationally appealing. I can certainly sympathize with the impulse of not even wanting this type of thing to exist, but it’s certainly a bit naive.

  2. #2 Joe Ballenger
    December 1, 2011

    Abbie: here’s the part I found particularly concerning buried in like the 13th paragraph:

    After 10 generations, the virus had become “airborne”: Healthy ferrets became infected simply by being housed in a cage next to a sick one. The airborne strain had five mutations in two genes, each of which have already been found in nature, Fouchier says; just never all at once in the same strain.

    So assuming the ferret model holds true, this experiment allowed us to identify (and thus track) potential mutations that could help the virus spread amongst humans.

  3. #3 levi
    December 1, 2011

    Interesting article. Is this guy saying that this research is good because it can be used to scare funding $$ up?

    “These studies are very important,” says biodefense and flu expert Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. The researchers “have the full support of the influenza community,” Osterholm says, because there are potential benefits for public health. For instance, the results show that those downplaying the risks of an H5N1 pandemic should think again, he says.

    Perhaps the death of 80 million due to flu during 1918-1920 is not scary enough, or is too removed in history to be useful as a funding incentive.

  4. #4 Epinephrine
    December 1, 2011

    Someone who wanted to release a For Real Super Scary Influenza Virus (FRSSIV) (which we are not even sure this variant of H5N1 would be) as a weapon would have to be one of those ‘Kill all humans, even me’ kind of mad scientists. A FRSSIV might be released in NYC, but it would quickly spread over the entire planet, and it would effect everyone because no one would have a vaccine/know how to fight it.

    A vaccine would be easy to make, if you are in the business of making virus. Flu vaccine technology is old. Grow virus in eggs. Inactivate virus. Inject inactivated virus as vaccine.

    It would still be insane, and I’m not arguing that anyone should or would do it, but the step of making a flu vaccine when you have the virus isn’t a big one.

  5. #5 gillt
    December 1, 2011

    Isn’t the bottleneck in vaccines production?

  6. #6 Connor
    December 1, 2011

    I take it the rationale for this work is so we can better predict the behavior of particular flu strains if and when they emerge and even when circulating in wild birds. If we are to draw up a potential hit-list of ‘dangerous’ mutations, how good is our screening of sequences out there in nature?

  7. #7 Tristan
    December 1, 2011

    Michael Crichton? What you have described is, of course, the opening to Stephen King’s The Stand.

  8. #8 Eric Lund
    December 1, 2011

    After 10 generations, the virus had become “airborne”: Healthy ferrets became infected simply by being housed in a cage next to a sick one.

    Shades of Ebola Reston. I only know of that story from the popular book about it, The Hot Zone, but as that book describes it, a similar story happened by accident in a lab which temporarily housed imported monkeys (infected, unbeknownst to the importers and customs inspectors, with Ebola) in suburban Washington, DC. Most Ebola/Marburg strains require direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected organism (relatively easy to arrange with these viruses), but the Reston strain was eventually shown to be capable of spreading through air. Luckily for all humans involved, the illness caused by an Ebola Reston infection in humans is no worse than an ordinary cold/flu, whereas other Ebola/Marburg strains have fatality rates ranging from 25 to 90 percent even with medical treatment. (The monkeys were not so lucky; the ones not already dead were euthanized on the spot.)

  9. #9 GregH
    December 1, 2011

    This is a very interesting story. Made even cooler by this discussion about hacking the virus to make it more contagious, written by a computer scientist. I thought his explanation of what this virus does from an information perspective was fascinating.

  10. #10 Tony Mach
    December 1, 2011

    Except the anthrax send in the wake of 9/11 came from US labs – not from Osama.

  11. #11 g724
    December 1, 2011

    The difference between bioweapons and all other WMD is that bugs do something unique: they multiply. A nuclear weapon set off in Manhattan, mass chemical attacks on multiple public transit systems, etc. etc. ad-nauseam: all of those are limited in geographic scope. Only biologicals have the potential for a small handful of nuts (six people with about $25,000 in funding, last time I checked) to have a truly multi-megadeath impact on a global scale.

    For this reason, the fields of research that bear upon the direct creation of bioweapons (e.g. how to make avian flu airborne between mammals) have to be treated differently to all other fields. Entry into these fields should be restricted to applicants who are closely screened. Ethical standards should be set at the highest level, including proscribing sensationalistic use of the media for one’s own worldly gains. The level of detail needed to enable terrorists and rogue states should be “born classified” and not released to the general public: only to participants in this pre-screened research community. And proposals for research projects should also be screened to ensure that excessive risk isn’t being taken in exchange for little benefit.

    The scientific and medical community outside of this rarified circle does not need access to the technical details for brewing up lethal bugs. If a danger is identified and a vaccine or treatment is to be developed, the communications between researchers and the pharmaceutical industry can also be conducted with appropriate secrecy. The fact that all of these measures: screening & vetting researchers and projects, maintaining appropriate secrecy, etc.; are necessarily imperfect, is no reason to declare pre-emptive defeat (a leaky roof isn’t justification for sleeping outdoors in a storm). Delaying and reducing the diffusion of potentially dangerous knowledge does indeed prevent disasters or buy time to pre-empt them (think of “taking the keys” to keep someone off the road until they sober up).

    Alternately there is a much simpler solution:

    Our culture needs to get over its obsessive fear of death and just accept the prospect of some nutjob unleashing a pandemic. The world is overpopulated anyway, and Americans are supposed to be “religious”, so what’s the big deal if some thug wipes out a million or ten million of us? If you or someone you know ends up a victim, what’s the big deal? You’re going to die anyway, and after you’re dead, either you won’t know it or you’ll be off to a wild adventure. But if you die from an exciting disease released by terrorists, at least you have the consolation of knowing that you died in a historic event!

    Right! So straighten up, and if you can’t keep a stiff upper lip about it, then at least be willing to look the Grim Reaper in the face and laugh!

  12. #12 EvilYeti
    December 1, 2011

    You need to think a little more subtly about how to most effectively weaponize germ warfare.

    It doesn’t have to be a doomsday scenario. You could only target a specific ethnicity, for example. Like Ashkenazi Jews.

    And don’t kill them, just cripple them. Can you imagine what would happen to a countries economy where half the population had CFS? Or were rendered infertile?

    You could even negotiate to sell them the treatment.

    Remember the melamine contamination thing from China a few years ago? I’ve often wondered whether that was a ‘dry run’ to test how difficult it would be to adulterate our food supply. The answer being, not very.

  13. #13 David Lloyd-Jones
    December 3, 2011

    This idea of inventing a counter to some wickedness before the wickedness comes into existence has a parallel in computerworld. The antidote to distributed zombie denial of service attacks was invented by some youngster in the Polish Post Office, and turned over to the FBI/Emergency Response Center in Kentucky a few months before the black hats actually started setting up the distributed zombies.

    The cure is not total: millions or perhaps hundreds of millions of machines have various kinds of zombies lodged in their innards — but they haven’t taken over the world. They’re merely a background infection, thanks to some brilliant advance work by the white hats.


  14. #14 theshortearedowl
    December 3, 2011

    I actually got asked to help design a bioweapon, by my cousin for his new thriller. I’ll let you know if it gets published.

    Also… ferrets? Why ferrets? Couldn’t they have used something less capable of biting your finger off?

  15. #15 Chris Watkins
    December 3, 2011

    Erv, I think you have too much faith in other people’s rationality.

    The real nuts are not crazy individuals, or crazy terrorist groups, but dysfunctional regimes. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had approx 2000 technicians and scientists working on bio-weapons before Gulf War 1. Stupid? Yes. Militarily useless? Of course. Competent? No. Dangerous? Luckily not. At that time they made a lot of anthrax. Did they continue after Gulf War 1? Apparently not.

    A dysfunctional regime is a large group of people, which can self-confirm truly crazy beliefs, and as a result they can do real harm.

    There are disadvantages to putting this knowledge out there.

  16. #16 Renate
    December 3, 2011

    I’m not completely sure and if I’m wrong, I suppose someone will correct me, but I think I’ve read, ferrets have some systems simular to human beings, which make them perfect guineapigs for this kind of experiments. If it works with ferrets is most likely also working the same way with human beings.

  17. #17 Anthony McCarthy
    December 3, 2011

    I’ve read this post and the comments rather quickly so if there was a mention of accidental or unintentional release of such a virus I missed it. So, did I miss it and if this kind of thing started to be done in a number of labs, increasing the chance of it getting loose in a way less dramatic than as a weapon, wouldn’t anyone who was dead as a result still be as dead?

  18. #18 Houston Chiropractor
    December 3, 2011

    I’ve got a feeling you aren’t going to need a nutjob to work on this project to make it a reality.
    We are altering the D.N.A. of plants to produce pesticides and we are giving our animals antibiotics, steroids, arsenic, etc.
    When we consistently think there will be no consequences for what we are doing now, we are all seriously on the edge of insanity.

  19. #19 TylerD
    December 3, 2011

    Sure is knee-jerk Luddite in here.

  20. #20 Justicar
    December 3, 2011

    Unsurprising, a ‘doctor’ of chiropractor writes

    When we consistently think there will be no consequences for what we are doing now, we are all seriously on the edge of insanity.

    It may have escaped your attention in quack school, but there isn’t a scientist living who thinks that there aren’t consequences which attend what we study and do. In fact, the assumption that consequences exist is precisely that on which we depend in order to research. If there weren’t consequences, the research would be useless, for no action would necessitate an outcome.

    Of particular importance is in how we address the potential consequence: we seek to maximize the positive ones while mitigating as best as possible the negative ones.

    Again, I can see why a chiropractor would write that given a common consequence of woo is nothing happens at all.

  21. #21 nutflipped
    December 4, 2011

    Once they discover the vaccine, the temptation for the elite to use it will be overwhelming. Without a doubt we are heading for WW3 because even a false notion, by those not immunized, that such a virus has been released , will trigger a nuclear response by them. Think about it.

  22. #22 EvilYeti
    December 4, 2011


    Distributed denial of service attacks were predicted in the 80’s by noted computer security researcher Steven Bellovin. Mitigations have been in place for all major operating systems and routers (e.g. reverse path filtering) since the 90’s.

    Your analogy is not only not apropos, it is not even correct.

  23. #23 Anthony McCarthy
    December 4, 2011

    “knee-jerk Luddite”

    What’s “Luddite” about facing the reality that the products of science are quite able to have malignant consequences in real life? That’s not a theoretical situation, it’s as obvious as the use of weapons and the destruction of the biosphere through the applications of geology and chemistry. This is especially the case when those products that are able to reproduce and act beyond the control of science or any other human agent.

    What is more common, rather, is the faith that none of the products of science is inherently dangerous and that the best attempts at containment of those are going to fail. In the case of something such as the kind of altered virus under discussion, one accidental escape or an intentional release could, conceivably kill millions of people.

    The religious faith in the morality and infallibility of science is more potentially dangerous than the misplaced faith in the morality and infallibility of popes. Science is efficacious, its products are frequently used, intentionally to kill people, many scientists have been paid to produce things with that clear purpose. In history, there is no clearer example than chemical weapons and nuclear weapons. There has never been a bio-weapons program that wasn’t staffed by scientists with the intention to kill many people very easily. Anyone who has misgivings about the production viruses with the potential of producing a world pandemic is far and away on the more rational side of this argument. The faith that any and all papers in science will, somehow, end up as either neutral or beneficial in effect is a blind faith in the face of massive evidence that this is untrue.

    On the one hand scientists and, even more so, their blog fans, brag about the effectiveness of science and then, on the other hand, they deny the proven effectiveness of its products when that is inconvenient to their idolatry. They also deny the possible unforeseen or unintended consequences of those when, as in the case of a virus, it might spread outside of the ability of anyone to contain it. . Obviously, they want to have it both ways.

    Luddites? No, people who refuse to wear blinders, such as those worn by religious fundamentalists, when it comes to looking at science and its real effects in the world. In this case, the very purpose of doing the experiment is to understand the possibility of a huge pandemic that would end up killing millions, the very proposal to do the work and publish the paper carries the obvious danger it imposes on the world.

    The concept of a fail-safe safety regime is as faith based as any idea people have come up with. It is one that was invented out of convenience for people who wanted to play with things that could kill millions of people. It is a false belief, no one is infallible, no human system is founded in infallibility.

  24. #24 daedalus2u
    December 4, 2011

    Anthony, the way they did this was quite “natural”, they just infected a ferret with it, then allowed that ferret to pass it on to another ferret. After 10 passages the virus had mutated into something really transmissible and really lethal.

    The researchers didn’t know that was going to happen before they did the experiment. This kind of thing could very easily happen in the wild. There are about 600 known cases from the parent strain of this flu and about half of them died. This is a virus that is widely circulating in the wild, it has decimated bird flocks on 3 different continents. Research needs to be done to try and figure out why it sometimes infects (and kills) humans and how to deal with it if it becomes more transmissible.

    Now that they know what a transmissible form looks like, they can specifically test for that particular form. Now they also know that this strain can be both highly lethal and highly transmissible. That was unknown before. Now that they know it is possible, and know what the genetics of at least one highly lethal and highly transmissible strain look like, they can test for them and be able to trigger public health actions earlier, before it has spread and killed more than thousands.

    There is also the possibility of putting antigens from this virus into the seasonal flu vaccine. Even if the vaccine only reduces the fatality rate from 50% to 5%, that would be a really good and important thing to do. That is something that can now be done because of this research.

    That is why this research needed to be done and why it needs to be published, so it can be incorporated into the next round of seasonal flu vaccines. The risk of this strain occurring naturally doesn’t go away if this research is suppressed.

    The Luddite comment was directed to the chiropractor. Chiropractors are Luddites in that many of them reject vaccines in favor of their magical back-cracking. Rejecting science in favor of magic and wishful thinking is an example of Luddite-type thinking.

  25. #25 Anthony McCarthy
    December 4, 2011

    The fact that people did it intentionally rather removes it from the realm of the natural in the sense you’re using the term. If you wanted to you could extend the idea that it was “natural” to every product of science since everything done by science conforms to “natural laws” or processes of some definition.

    Of course they might learn something that is important by doing this kind of thing, perhaps something that could help prevent or, eventually, treat pandemics. But to routinely pretend that every paper, every research project and every act done by scientists should be covered under the same rules of universal accessibility can only be the product of willfully ignoring the difference in KNOWN potential danger. Whether or not unknown potential dangers should be investigated in this context is something that should also be considered.

    If this or similar experiments come to be done in many labs around the world, I am certain the possibility of viruses of enhanced danger being released increases with both number and time. Eventually this kind of research will become routine and, with commercial applications, its regulation relaxed through political and financial pressure. That has been the record of dangerous substances as their use increases the possibility of regulation decreases even for extremely dangerous substances. Consider this:

    And, as dangerous as it is, cesium-137 isn’t virulent, it isn’t able to reproduce. I am almost certain that with the spread of research of the type mentioned here, the tendency is for those working with it to become more casual with its handling. The fact is that an organism being able to reproduce and spread makes a real difference in the potential danger it holds.

    The same is true for even beneficial substances, such as antibiotics, not only in loosely regulated societies but also in places such as the United States.

    With its increased potency, the idea that science can continue to go by rules more appropriate to its potency in the 18th century than to contemporary reality is willfully and dangerously negligent.

  26. #26 Irene
    December 4, 2011

    @ EvilYeti: Not a very likely scenario, since there was a melamine contamination scandal in China itself about the same time. A major brand of milk and dairy products (including infant formula) which sold on the Chinese domestic market was found adulterated with melamine. It lead to several arrests and prison sanctions, and even two executions.

    Other melamine scares occured inside China, and some in other Asian countries like Thailand. It’s not necessary to suspect a conspiracy when a lack of adequate regulation and a fast-paced, largely anarchic economic boom do the trick.

  27. #27 daedalus2u
    December 4, 2011

    Anthony, you really are a Luddite. Did you read the linked to article? Do you appreciate that the researchers didn’t know what was going to happen when they did the research? Do you appreciate that they did take appropriate precautions? Do you appreciate that new flu strains do pop up that are widely lethal?

    Do you appreciate that this flu pandemic killed ~3% of the human population? If something like this happened now, it could kill hundreds of millions. The flu of 1918 only killed about 10% of those it infected. The bird flu strains being worked with kill more like 50%. If a bird flu strain become easily transmissible it could kill a billion people. And you want to just hide your head in the sand and do nothing?

    Doing nothing is what caused the Flu pandemic of 1918. Now there are vaccines, but they take time to prepare.

  28. #28 Anthony McCarthy
    December 4, 2011

    Daedalus2u, I read it. Your response doesn’t change anything about what I said about the possibility of science producing viruses that could, if accidentally released, kill many people. Are you contending that’s impossible?

    Scientists have a bad track record when it comes to taking moral responsibility for the results of their work, even when that has the most obvious consequences, even when the malignant results of it are what they were paid to produce. A favorite dodge is to blame it on engineers.

    As you point out the consequences of an easily transmitted virus gaining a foothold in the population could be a catastrophic pandemic. That certainly means that the production of such a virus can’t be allowed to be done under the same rules that govern science that doesn’t carry that potential. What happens outside of human intention is dangerous enough. The application of human intention and design can produce varieties far more quickly than generally happens in nature and along desired lines. As this kind of research becomes routine the tendency will be to cut corners either casually or as planned as cost reduction in commercial applications. That kind of widely practiced fudging is a very serious matter when it’s something that is so potentially dangerous.

    The use of the term “Luddite” here is rather mistaken, considering they Luddites were concerned with the loss of their jobs in the face of technology. In this discussion it’s the researchers and would be researchers who are concerned for their jobs if this kind of research is restricted. The term is misapplied in this argument.

  29. #29 TylerD
    December 5, 2011

    Anthony, my “knee-jerk Luddite” comment wasn’t directed at you.

  30. #30 windy
    December 5, 2011

    theshortearedowl & Renate: unlike many lab animals (and pets), ferrets are susceptible to the same influenza strains as humans. They’re also a good model for how humans vomit (not so relevant for flu but good for developing anti-nausea drugs for cancer patients, for example)

  31. #31 Renate
    December 5, 2011

    Thanks for the explanation Windy. I knew it had something to do with this, but didn’t know exactly what.

  32. #32 daedalus2u
    December 5, 2011

    Anthony, ok, instead of Luddite how about technophobe?

    What criteria would you use to stop research before it is done? Because it might produce a scary result? In this case, to prevent the research that produced this specific scary result from being done would mean preventing trying to transmit flu to and between animals in the laboratory.

    Flu is a virus. It can only replicate using animal cells. How are researchers supposed to do research on flu virus if they are not allowed to try and transmit flu to and between animals? How are vaccines or other preventative or treatment methods supposed to be tested? How do you test to see if a virus grown to generate a vaccine has been inactivated?

    Using your criteria, vaccine research would come to a complete halt.

    The research was done in a BSL-3 plus laboratory.

  33. #33 Anthony McCarthy
    December 5, 2011


    You dead-2u, you have devolved into the insult as discourse mode all too common to Scienceblog discussions. I’m not playing that on another blog.

  34. #34 DMcILROY
    December 29, 2011

    I find this whole story vaguely familiar, and sure enough, something close was done in 2007 by the awesome Gary Nabel

    It was more of a molecular study than the ferret transmission experiments, but the objective was clearly to try and get one step ahead of the virus so that we can produce a vaccine against a virus that doesn’t exist in the wild yet. Sheer brilliance.


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