Bird-Flu Virus Engineered in Wisconsin Lab Isn’t Fatal, Scientist Says

An airborne strain of avian flu engineered in Wisconsin isn’t lethal and can be blocked with existing medicines, the study’s lead scientist said.

While the mutated virus was contagious among laboratory ferrets, it didn’t kill any of them, said Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a professor of virology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. There’s an urgent need for more research on transmissible bird- flu strains, Kawaoka said in a commentary published online today in the Journal Nature.

Kawaoka was among scientists who last week halted their experiments for 60 days in response to what the researchers called a “perceived fear” that mutated forms of the virus may escape from labs and infect humans. The Wisconsin team, and a group of scientists in the Netherlands, agreed last month not to publish certain details of their bird-flu research after a U.S. biosecurity panel asked them to keep it secret for security reasons.

There is an urgent need “to expand development, production and distribution” of bird-flu vaccines “and to stockpile antiviral compounds,” Kawaoka said. Censoring the findings “will make it harder for legitimate scientists to get this information while failing to provide a barrier to those who would do harm.”

The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended blocking the publication of certain methods and genetic mutations used by Kawaoka’s group and the Dutch team led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam. Fouchier’s team engineered a lethal strain of bird flu that was contagious among laboratory ferrets.

The advisory panel, formed after the 2001 anthrax attacks, urged the data be kept secret after determining the risks of publishing it would outweigh the benefits.

To contact the reporter on this story: Molly Peterson in Washington at mpeterson9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Adriel Bettelheim at abettelheim@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.