Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science
The Risk of Engineering a Highly Transmissible H5N1 Virus
To cite this article:
Thomas V. Inglesby, Anita Cicero, and D. A. Henderson. Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science. -Not available-, ahead of print. doi:10.1089/bsp.2011.1214.
Online Ahead of Print: December 16, 2011
Thomas V. Inglesby,
Anita Cicero, and
D. A. Henderson
Thomas V. Inglesby, MD, is the Chief Executive Officer and Director; Anita Cicero, JD, is Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Director; and D. A. Henderson, MD, MPH, is a Distinguished Scholar, all at the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC, Baltimore, Maryland. Drs. Inglesby and Henderson are Coeditors-in-Chief of Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science.
Over the past 8 years, H5N1 avian influenza has sickened 571 people, killing 59% of them. To give some perspective, the fatality rate of the virus that caused the 1918 Great Pandemic was 2%, and that pandemic killed on the order of 50 million people. Like all influenza strains, H5N1 is constantly evolving in nature. But thankfully, this deadly virus does not now spread readily through the air from person to person. If it evolves to become as transmissible as normal flu and results in a pandemic, it could cause billions of illnesses and deaths around the world—the proportion of the global population affected by past pandemics.
Scientists recently have announced that they genetically modified H5N1 in the laboratory and that this mutated strain spread through the air between ferrets that were physically separated from each other. This is ominous news. Since ferret influenza virus infection closely mirrors human infection and is similarly transmissible, these scientists appear to have created a bird flu strain with characteristics that indicate it would be readily transmissible by air between humans. In fact, the lead scientist on one of the experiments explicitly stated this.
The question is this: Should we purposefully engineer avian flu strains to become highly transmissible in humans? In our view, no. We believe the benefits of this work do not outweigh the risks. Here's why.