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Controversy Over H5N1 Bird Flu Research: Will The Mutation Go Airborne?

Bird Flu OutbreakFears surrounding an airborne mutation of the bird flu have grown since a ban on such research was recently lifted. The scientific process can often become both political and controversial – the avian flu testing is no exception.

Bird flu researchers may soon be resuming laboratory testing to attempt to create an airborne mutation of the disease. Are these men mad scientists playing with fire or merely academics who want to protect the world? Only time will tell. Even if the latter is true, the chance of accidentally creating an airborne bird flu virus and ultimately a pandemic, may not be worth the risk.

Controversy first began swirling around the H5N1 research in 2011. Two scientists experimented on the extremely transmissible bird flu to create an airborne mutation to study how the virus spreads. In theory, the laboratory virus would help create a vaccine if the avian flu ever did morph into airborne status naturally.

The United States government placed a moratorium on the research when the controversy erupted and made international headlines. Earlier this month the bird flu research ban was lifted. The government also announced “new policies” for reviewing such potentially deadly research before taxpayer funds were made available for the project.

We all feel much safer now that the government has created new funding review guidelines, right? The guidelines specifically address research which is deemed “dual use, meaning the study could do both good and harm.

After thoroughly researching the airborne bird flu policy for multiple articles, I have yet to unearth even one sentence addressing background checks for those involved in the mutation development.  The possibility of a person with ill-intent having access to the airborne H5N1 virus is almost too startling to contemplate.

Should scientists get the green light for continued testing, they plan to make airborne droplets of the bird flu that could infect mammals. Approximately 600 human H5N1 infections have occurred since 2003. About 60 percent of those cases were fatal. In its current state, the avian flu is not easily passed between humans, but still carries a potential to cause a pandemic.

The risky bird flu research would create a much more transmissible version of H5N1, drastically increasing the threat for a worldwide pandemic. What would happen to America if the airborne bird flu mutation would either accidentally or purposely escape the lab? If such a scenario did occur, the death toll would be both quick and devastating.

In a best case scenario, the H5N1 airborne vaccine would already be a reality before tragedy struck. But, what if the worst case scenario should occur, how many children would die in the name of scientific pursuit? Once scientists were able to create an airborne avian flu vaccine, it would still take time to mass produce and ship around the country.

Many scientists argue that research on deadly pathogens like H5N1 and the Ebola virus are critical and are conducted in the name of preparedness.  A secondary aspect of the airborne bird flu research controversy involves the publication of study results. Although many of us many not fully comprehend the steps used in the study and the scientific details, that does not mean a rogue nation or medically trained terrorist will not.

Do you think scientists should be allowed to create and airborne version of the H5N1 virus?

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