News / Health

Bird Flu Researchers Postpone Work Amid Bioterrorism Concern

Health workers slaughter chickens at a wholesale poultry market in Hong Kong, December 21, 2011.
Health workers slaughter chickens at a wholesale poultry market in Hong Kong, December 21, 2011.

Two separate teams of scientists trying to develop a vaccine for the H5N1 strain of bird flu have agreed to temporarily postpone their research because of growing concern that a highly-infectious version of the virus the researchers are working with could fall into the hands of terrorists or trigger a deadly pandemic.

The laboratory-altered strain the scientists are working with is a potent airborne variety of H5N1 that easily could spread among humans.  The original H5N1 strain of avian influenza has killed 340 people worldwide since it was first detected in 2003.  

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin in the United States and at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands say they are voluntarily halting their work for 60 days.  They say the two months will give governments, international organizations and the scientific community time to determine whether the research can be conducted safely.

Biosecurity officials and health experts say that if the potent altered virus reached the general public, it potentially could cause a devastating pandemic.  Some fear a worldwide epidemic of airborne bird flu could rival the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak that killed between 20 million and 40 million people in less than two years.

The U.S.-based journal, Science and the British journal, Nature, both published the researchers’ announcement on Friday.

The original H5N1 strain of avian influenza is not transmitted through the air, and it does not spread easily among humans.  H5N1 usually only infects people that come into direct contact diseased birds.   

In December, the journals, Science and Nature, reluctantly agreed to a U.S. government request not to publish key details of the H5N1 experiments because terrorists could use the information to make a biological weapon.   It is not clear if or when studies will be published.  Washington is funding the H5N1 research.  

Most H5N1 deaths have occurred in East and Southeast Asia, including China, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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