In late 2011, scientists were able to show that it would only take 9 mutations for bird flu to become airborne, meaning it would become transmissible via coughs and sneezes, rather than just bird to human.
Bird flu has only infected a small number of people since its discovery, but a majority have died. Airborne, flu infection rates, and corresponding death rates, would skyrocket.
So, before research could be published, it was shut down—and a discussion begun on the merits of developing such a potentially catastrophic virus in a lab. If it escapes, there’d be no containing it. On the other hand, researching it ahead of time could be life-saving: we could know which animal populations to watch, develop a vaccine, or better understand bird flu symptoms and how they lead to death.
The latter attitude has recently won out, as many countries (not including the US) have resumed research on mutated bird flu.
The risk is very, very high. Even if the labs conducting the trials on bird flu follow strict guidelines to prevent its release, the mutation is simple enough that it could be reproduced from papers published on the research.
But, we’re close enough to that mutation happening naturally, it probably doesn’t matter. This summer, several US animal populations were declared prime candidates to be the body of bird flu mutation. One example are seals on the east coast, who host both bird flu and swine flu. Gene sharing between the two strains may make mutation to a deadly, airborne version of bird flu even shorter than the nine changes bird flu would have to make on its own.
This flu season has been particularly horrible, and the flu shot hasn’t much improved things (it’s only got about a 60% chance of giving you immunity). A flu season this severe, but more deadly, isn’t a fun future to imagine—but it may be just around the corner.
What do you think? Should research on the deadly bird flu mutation continue, or is it too dangerous?