A man-made virus that could wipe out half humanity has been deemed a terrorist threat. And while the scientists behind the Frankenstein-flu hoped their research would help find a cure, critics fear they have developed the ultimate bio-weapon.
When virologist Ron Fouchier and his team of scientists first "mutated the hell out of" the H5N1 bird flu virus and presented their findings this past September, fear spread like contagion across the Internet.
But it is not just panic-prone bloggers who are up in arms about the latest virus.
Microbiologist and US National Science Advisory Board (NSABB) chair Paul Keim did not mince his words when describing the potentially deadly bug.
"I can`t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one," Keim told the Science Insider Journal. "I don`t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this."
Despite the widespread panic, the Dutch team who engineered the deadly strain at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam still hope to publish their findings in the American Journal of Science.
However, sensing the imminent threat of making the results of their investigation public, the NSABB reviewed the paper to determine whether it should ever see the light of day.
One senior scientific advisor to the US Government also expressed his grave concerns.
"The fear is that if you create something this deadly and it goes into 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," the Daily Mail cites.
With the US government calling on the researchers not to publish the details in scientific journals, The National Institutes of Health, which funded the research, said Tuesday that while researchers are making changes, it`s important for the overall findings to be published, the Associated Press reports.
Fouchier for his part, while admitting one could not manufacture a more lethal virus, also remains adamant that his research should be published to empower the scientific community to react appropriately.
While the H5N1 bird flu strain was so vicious it killed over half of all people infected with it, humanity`s saving grace was that it did not readily pass between people.
However, the one aspect of the disease that protected the world from an all-out pandemic went out the window when researchers altered the H5N1 bird flu strain so that it could be transmitted through the air.
╜Many critics say the decision to practically weaponize an already deadly virus borders on the criminal.
Andrew Bosworth, the author of Biotech Empire, says publication of the research would be in direct contravention of the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972.
Writing to the Chair of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), Bosworth argued if an ordinary citizen had concocted this virus "in a garage," he "would be subject to a 15-year prison sentence."
He went on to say it is ludicrous to claim that publishing details of the virus would enable scientists to find a cure.
"This argument assumes that the most recent H5N1 strain is a threat to human populations, and it is not (unless we make it so). The strain in question never existed in nature; instead, it mutated across 10 generations in a laboratory setting, among a population of ferrets," Multipolarfuture reports.
Bosworth further asserted that "publishing details of this manufactured virus would green-light the concoction of ever-more deadly pathogens for fame and profit."
The new strain has five mutations as compared to the original, which had one. While all five individual strains were naturally occurring, they were never found in a single microorganism.
Although pathogens naturally evolve, their evolution rarely moves along such a concertedly deadly path. The new virus is just as contagious as the flu - which kills tens of thousands of people each year - but would be vastly more deadly if released.
The man-made killer bug is currently being stored in a basement somewhere at the Rotterdam medical university, though without the benefit of armed guards.
It would now appear the heated debate over whether or not to publish the research regarding the world`s most potentially potent super-flu is a Catch-22. By creating the virus, the only way to prevent a potential outbreak on a previously unknown scale is to increase the risk that it might occur.
sections: Society, Nature & Health