Written by: Damian Roache
On Friday the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement about a newly created version of bird flu that it considers a very dangerous liability. Their opinion comes a week after the U.S. National Institutes of Health requested that research on the new flu not be published due to the sensitive nature of the work.
In their statement, WHO said, “Recent media reports have noted that, if published, details of the research could provide bio-terrorists with crucial information on how to mutate the virus into a deadlier, human-to-human transmissible form.”
The problem with doing this research, according to WHO, is the potential for such discoveries to be used improperly.
The bird flu, known as H5N1, is a virus that does not often affect humans. For those few unlucky enough to get it, the flu is very unforgiving: it is fatal in 60% of cases.
New research was being done by scientists at Erasmus University Medical Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison that led to the creation of a new type of H5N1. This strain of the virus is more communicable to humans, making it far deadlier than previous known versions.
The World Health Organization stressed that any more research done with the virus should only continue, “after all important public health risks and benefits have been identified and reviewed.”
Despite the volatile nature of the research, WHO understands that further work with the H5N1 could lead to valuable information.
WHO is a leader among those interested in studying and preventing outbreaks of bird flu. In 2005, WHO created the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework. The main goal of the Framework is to foster cooperation between researchers across the globe in order to help prevent a pandemic.
The guidelines set up by WHO allow for total transparency regarding the virus. By sharing information and research on the flu, scientists are able to combine their efforts.
The risks inherent in researching the deadly virus are unavoidable, but WHO wants to ensure that new information about H5N1 is available to those capable of using the findings in the international fight against the flu.
Scientists in Asia are especially anxious to be allowed access to the new research. The H5N1 virus originated in Asia’s local bird populations and has since spread across the world.
Now all that remains is a delicate balancing act between further research to determine the nature of H5N1 and a cautious approach to handling the information. In the right hands this research could help prevent a deadly pandemic, but if used for more malicious purposes the new flu could prove a most deadly weapon.