Last September, Ron Fouchier, a Dutch virologist, announced at a conference in Malta that he had succeeded in creating a strain of H5N1 that could readily infect ferrets and transmit between them via airborne transmission. Due to the similar interactions between the immune systems of ferrets and humans with influenza viruses, this implies that this virus could do the same for humans and touch off a global pandemic were it to be released. Since this announcement, debate has raged over whether or not this research was safe or justifiable and over the fate of the unpublished data and modified virus strain. While Fouchier wishes for the data to be published and the results made completely open to the scientific community, his paper remains under review by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and others have condemned his research, arguing that the resulting data should not be published because of the potential for misuse.
Fouchier has defended his work on the grounds that it proves the potential for H5N1 to infect humans in the same manner as seasonal flu and thus presents a possible risk for a global pandemic. Still, the debate over the nature of the experiment, the fate of the virus, and whether or not to publish the data closely mirrors the smallpox debate covered in class. In the end, both of these debates should, in principle, be resolved by judging the benefits versus risks of taking action, here the scientific potential of continuing and replicating this research versus the threat of misuse. These may prove to not be the only factors in play as seen by a recent Daily Mail article that describes the virus as having the potential to 'wipe out civilization'. While these are clearly inflammatory and speculative properties, this research frankly has all of the hallmarks of a bad cautionary story of “Science Gone Wrong” written all over it. The public's reaction has yet to be seen, and the potential for a serious backlash could affect the decision to publish.
Daily Mail Article: