By Julia Day

Researchers in a Dutch University laboratory have mutated the H5N1 strain of avian influenza so that it can be transmitted betweem humans through the air via coughs and sneezes, according to a UK newspaper report this morning. The US Government is worried the ‘super strain’ may escape the lab and cause a pandemic, or if the scientific paper detailing how they did it is published in its entirety, the information may be used by terrorists to create a bio-weapon.

In the report, by The Independent’s Science Editor Steve Connor, a US government senior scientific advisor says: “The fear is that is you create something this deadly and it goes in to a global pandemic, the mortality and cost to the world could be massive. The worst-case scenario here is worse than anything you can imagine.” Previously, it was thought that ‘bird flu’ could only be passed betwen humans via very close contact.

The study was carried out by a team at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, led by Robn Fouchier. The Centre’s website says: “The discovery will enable scientists to recognize in time when a virus becomes a threat to public health, thereby possibly preventing a pandemic.”

The aim of the study, then, was the opposite of what the US government believes could happen as a result of it. But the US thinks disclosure of the full genetic sequence of the mutated virus may lead to dangerous, nay, deadly misuse. And as any sci-fi fan knows, one man’s miracle cure is another (mad) man’s weapon.

Thus, the US government’s National Security Advisory Board for Biosecurity is understood to have advised US officials that key parts of the Erasmus paper should be redacted. Fouchier is not commenting further until a decision has been made about publication, according to Connor’s piece.

It’s a fascinating and cautionary tale about scientific discovery and transparency. But it also gives an insight in to how preparedness for known threats can be caught off guard by unknown threats. The world has been gearing up for an avian flu pandemic with complex surveillance systms and stockpiles of anti-viral vaccines. But these systems were not banking on scientists creating a super strain in a potentially insecure Rotterdam basement.

The STEPS Centre’s Ian Scoones and colleagues have done a lot of work looking at the international responses to avian flu, and what changes are needed to the public health systems that have been put in place nationally and internationally, such as the ‘One World, One Health’ approach.

If you would like to know more about how virus genetics, ecology and epidemiology link to ecoomic, political and policy processes, take a look at our avian flu resources which includes short briefings, longer papers with case studies from around the world, and a book, entitled Avian Influenza: Science. Policy and Politics.

Plus, SPRU-based colleagues of the STEPS Centre, Caitrıona McLeish and Paul Nightingale have written in Science Direct on the increasing convergence science and security policy in an article entitled: Biosecurity, bioterrorism and the governance of science