Bird flu research is prompting concerns about possible bioterrorism. A ban on controversial research was recently lifted and scientists will now be able to once again try to create an airborne version of H5N1 in a laboratory setting.
The researchers think that by getting ahead of a possible airborne mutation of the bird flu, they can create life-saving treatments or a vaccine. An avian flu pandemic could quickly and easily morph into a plague if the virus goes airborne.
While such research could ultimately prove useful, the chance that the airborne bird flu cultures could escape from the lab and be used for bioterrorism should not be taken lightly. The ban on the controversial H5N1 research lasted far longer than originally announced, but the new policies and procedures put into place do not ultimately speak to the most pressing concerns about such studies.
The only real change the federal government mandated in relation to the airborne bird flu testing pertains to funding guidelines. Projects like avian flu testing will now be deemed “dual use.” The designation means that research which can be used for both harm and good will face more review during funding stages.
Nothing that I discovered when researching the topic addressed safety and security concerns at the lab, or background checks for all levels of staffers. If terrorists were able to take flying lessons at a small airport in Venice, Florida, it is not out of the realm of possibility that a person with evil intent could get a janitor’s job at a science lab.
The benefits must outweigh the risks before approval is given for any type of airborne bird flu research – the stakes are just too high. Even if such a project does not get approved for government funding, that does not necessarily mean the end of the research. A law would have to be passed specifically prohibiting H5N1 airborne research for a true ban to be put into place.
Although the federal government considers the bird flu testing controversy resolved, similar projects are springing up in multiple other countries. When the moratorium on airborne bird flu testing was lifted, 40 leading scientists from around the world praised the government’s decision. However, bioterrorism experts are still cautioning against the airborne avian flu research.
University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, one of the scientists involved with the controversial testing before the ban was implemented, claims the risks for an airborne mutation of the bird flu already exists in nature and it is imperative science gets ahead of the virus.
Attempting to find a way to stop or vaccinate against a worldwide pandemic or plague before it happens is truly important, but the bioterrorism concerns need to be taken far more seriously first.
As the bird flu bioterrorism debate rages on, a new aspect of the avian flu controversy has emerged. A team of Australian scientists are nearing completion on a group of genetically modified chickens. The researchers have interfered with RNA molecules to supposedly generate a flock of super-chickens that can resist bird flu. If the chickens successfully generate offspring, the animals could be used to create an H5N1 vaccine.
Do you think airborne bird flu research places America at risk for bioterrorism?