Bird Flu Research Could Give Bioterrorists Ammunition

GENEVA, Switzerland, January 2, 2012 (ENS) – The United Nations health agency is warning that scientific research on a strain of highly pathogenic bird flu could have negative consequences.

If published, details of the research could provide bioterrorists with crucial information on how to mutate the virus into a deadlier, human-to-human transmissible form, said the World Health Organization in a statement on Friday.

The WHO said that recent studies on whether changes to the H5N1 strain of bird flu could make it more transmissible between humans might lead to “possible risks and misuses.”

Chickens for sale in a Hong Kong wet market (Photo by metaphoric)

Yet WHO also acknowledged that tightly-controlled studies are needed to continue to limit the possibility of future risks to the global population.

“Research which can improve the understanding of these viruses and can reduce the public health risk is a scientific and public health imperative,” WHO stated.

“While it is clear that conducting research to gain such knowledge must continue, it is also clear that certain research, and especially that which can generate more dangerous forms of the virus than those which already exist, has risks,” warned the global health body.

The organization noted that any further research should be done “only after all important public health risks and benefits have been identified and reviewed.”

“Because these viruses can cause such severe illness in people, scientists are especially concerned that this type of influenza could one day mutate so it spreads easily between people and causes a very serious influenza pandemic,” WHO said.

WHO urged all research teams to fully abide by the regulations set out in the new Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework, released in May 2011. It sets out a guideline to the sharing of influenza viruses with pandemic potential and the resulting benefits.

Since 2003, the H5N1 virus has killed or forced the culling of more than 400 million domestic poultry and caused an estimated $20 billion of economic damage.

Although it does not infect humans often, about 60 percent of those infected with the disease die. The latest death occurred earlier this year in Cambodia, which has registered eight cases of human infection this year – all of them fatal.

While H5N1 was believed to be eliminated from most of the 63 infected countries, in August 2011 the UN Food and Agriculture Agency reported a surge in outbreaks of the virus, with almost 800 cases recorded between 2010 and 2011.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.