Don’t panic: Killer virus hype

Engineered Avian Flu Could Kill Half the World’s Humans

This is the real story of a scientist who created a virus with the power to litter the Earth with billions of dead bodies.

In his Netherlands laboratory, virologist Ron Fouchier was experimenting with the avian flu virus to see how it could become even more virulent. His research involved spreading it throughout a population of ferrets, and he noticed that as the virus reproduced, it adapted to spread even faster. Not worried about ferret flu? Previous research has shown that any strains of influenza that can pass between ferrets can also pass between humans. Ten generations later, his efforts had created an airborne strain with the power could kill half the human population.

Credit: io9

And the discussion erupted over sharing this information which could either help scientists find ways to stop virus spreading or could enable nefarious sorts from exploiting it. [Scientists Brace for Media Storm Around Controversial Flu Studies]

So, now to the level head of Carl Zimmer:

Reports have surfaced about two teams of scientists producing flu viruses that could potentially kill millions if they escaped from the labs. The scientists have the viruses locked up tight for now, and government officials are debating whether they can publish their results.

So is this evidence that scientists have become viral Frankensteins, who can engineer pathogens at will? Hardly.

The new research is part of a long-running struggle to understand how new flu strains arise. It’s clear that all flu viruses that infect humans ultimately evolved from viruses that infect birds. From time to time, people can pick up these viruses, which infect their airway. Depending on the strain, bird flu may be harmless or lethal to humans. But for the most part, it can’t get from one human to another. It’s too well adapted for life in birds.

Thank you, Carl. We can breathe easier now. For a while…