People had many feelings after a report emerged that two virologists had engineered deadly avian flu so it could spread amongst ferrets.  The New York Times famously called the disease “doomsday” and made the prediction that “tens or hundreds of millions of people could get killed.”  So, there’s that.
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Scientists also voiced concerns that the works shows that mutated viruses could become deadly pandemics if they were released into the wild – or a worst case scenario the work could be used by terrorists to unleash their own bio-engineered bioweapons.

The two researchers in questions, Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical College in Rotterdam, mutated an existing strain of avian influence so it could easily attach to mammalian cells.  Kawoaka modified the H1N1 virus with a gene from the H5N1 avian flu – the same virus that sparked a huge outbreak amongst people in 2009.  He used the virus to infect ferrets, and from there it acquired two further mutations.

Fouchier’s process was different.  He transferred it as avian flu from ferret nose to cotton swab to new ferret.

In both cases, however, the disease was now transferable easily between ferrets, and most concerningly, through the air.

A federal advisory panel suggested blocking the studies, but it’s members backed down in March of this year, when both Fouchier and Kawaoka met with the panel, to prove the viruses were not fatal to humans.  Kawaoka’s research was publish in May’s Nature; and Fouchier’s was published in June’s Science.

For the time being, a global moratorium on flue transmission research is in effect.  Kawaoka and Fouchier, despite the bad press, still want to continue their researcher, insisting that understanding the genetics of flu virus transmission is crucial to preventing a future flu pandemic, a concern that far outweighs any risks their work may have.

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