It sounds like the setup for a Hollywood thriller: scientists in a lab create a virus as contagious as the flu that kills half of those infected. We're safe as long as the virus remains locked up, but if it escapes or gets into the hands of bioterrorists, it has the potential to become a pandemic and kill millions around the world.
But this isn't the latest summer blockbuster. According to New Scientist magazine, researchers in the Netherlands studying H5N1 -- commonly referred to as the bird flu or avian influenza -- have created a strain of the virus that's easily passed between mammals, and it's just as lethal as the original virus.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the H5N1 virus has infected more than 500 people in more than a dozen countries and is known to kill around 60 percent of those that become infected.
Ron Fouchier, a researcher at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, led the team that successfully created the mutation. Fouchier presented the findings at a conference in Malta in September and, according to NPR, is now seeking publication of his results.
But some in the scientific community are debating whether or not that's a good idea.
"It's just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus. And it's a second bad idea for them to publish how they did it so others can copy it," Dr. Thomas Inglesby, the director and CEO of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh, told NPR.
Others, like Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), told Science magazine that "These studies are very important."
The researchers "have the full support of the influenza community," Osterholm says, because there are potential benefits for public health. For instance, the results show that those downplaying the risks of an H5N1 pandemic should think again, he says.
The study is currently being reviewed by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a "federal advisory committee chartered to provide advice, guidance, and leadership regarding...biological research with legitimate scientific purpose that may be misused to pose a biologic threat to public health and/or national security."
What do you think? Should the results of the study be made public? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?