Jan 29, 2012Science and Technology
The debate over H5N1 and the future of disease research
There is a debate raging across the globe that could influence how the scientific community and world governments handle researching some of the most deadly diseases. Right now, researchers and governmental bodies are reviewing and debating the precautionary measures that scientists should take when researching and genetically modifying infectious diseases. At the center of this whole debate is a modified strain of H5N1.

H5N1 is a subtype of the influenza A virus, commonly known as avian flu or bird flu. H5N1 is responsible for countless animal deaths, and when transmitted from animal to human, the disease has a mortality rate of over 50 percent [WHO: H5N1]. Until now, there has been no evidence of H5N1 being transmitted between humans, but scientists worry that it is only a matter of time before the disease mutates and becomes transmittable between humans. If this happens, the world could be looking at a pandemic much like the Spanish flu pandemic that killed over 50 million people in 1918.

Last year, Yoshihiro Kawaoka and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison were able to modify the H5N1 virus by combing the H5 haemagglutinin (HA) gene with genes from the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus. What the researchers found was that the modified disease was transmittable between ferrets and, therefore, if the disease mutates, it is possibly transmittable between other mammals. When the researchers announced their findings, the media exploded with stories about public outrage [Nature: H5N1 Fears] and governmental fears over bioterrorism [NPR: Bioterrorism]; this caused the United States government to censor the research findings [Nature: Censorship of Research]. The public outrage has finally led researchers to announce a 60-day break on their H5N1 research in hopes of providing the public with a better understanding of why the research into the disease is necessary [Nature: Research Break].

This leaves several questions: What was the purpose of this research? Are the fears of bioterrorism founded? Is the research important enough to continue?

Kawaoka thinks that the purpose of this research is clear. He thinks that the H5N1 virus poses a huge and global threat to humankind. H5N1 was modified by Kawaoka and his colleagues to understand how the disease could mutate into becoming transmittable between humans. This research could lead to potential treatments before the disease mutates in the wild [Nature: H5N1 research urgent]. This is not a case, as suggested by other sources, of scientists tapering with or weaponizing a harmless disease. H5N1 is a real threat, and this research is the best method scientists can use to produce timely and innovative treatments.

Of course, there are some credible concerns. However, is bioterrorism one of them? Diseases have a poor track record as a weapon of terror in modern history. The biological agents of World War I killed just as many men on the side that released the disease agent as the intended target. Most modern bioterrorism acts have ended in few deaths or utter failure. A weaponized form of H5N1 would act in the same capacity as the biological and chemical weapons of World War I, just on a global scale. This makes it a poor weapon for anyone other than the completely insane.

However, I understand why the United States government is concerned. If researchers can genetically modify the H5N1 virus to be pathogenic, other, weaponizable diseases, could also be modified. Moreover, the United States is utterly unprepared for a large-scale biological attack. Its health system is strained on a normal day. A large-scale biological attack could be devastating. Moreover, the increasingly dense, city-dwelling population, along with the increasingly centralizing nature of our food and water supplies, leaves the United States open to many types of biological attack.

Yet, the research is important. The real threats are natural. Flu viruses have a high mutation rate, and H5N1 viruses have been located around the globe that already have some of the mutations necessary to become transmittable between humans. Flu is not the only threat. Diseases of all kinds are mutating daily. Bacterial infections are becoming more and more resistant to antibiotics, and India is dealing with a superbug of its own [NY Times]. The research done by Kawaoka and his colleagues in the scientific community can allow the us to stay ahead of these changes. This is important in a global world with high population of people and animals, since most of the deadly diseases in human history were first transmitted to humans by animals.

So the research needs to continue. In fact, modifying diseases to understand their capabilities and possible future is the most technical and innovative solution to these so-called superbugs. However, how the researchers move forward is an important question. Even if bioterrorism does not appear to be a real threat, there are questions of safety and human error that need to be addressed. Furthermore, while I generally support open research practices, I understand the fear over these deadly new strains. During this debate, governmental officials and researchers need to come together and put research guidelines and practices in place that will minimize the dangers without stifling research. How this is done is important. In this current case of H5N1, the censorship of the research only limits and bogs down science, stifling innovation. For there to be true advances in research, it is important that the research be available to as many scientists in as many fields as possible. With the continuing threat of global pandemics, this field of research will only continue to expand, so it is important that a set of guidelines be produced that will benefit both the public and research community.
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