H5N1 Flu Virus Could be 'Engineered' to Put Hundreds of Millions at Risk, Scientist Tells Homeland Security Committee

April 26, 2012 - 5:40 PM
bird flu

Chickens were slaughtered at a Hong Kong poultry market in 2008 after some were discovered to have bird flu. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

(CNSNews.com) - If H5N1 bird flu, which has a 60-percent fatality rate, were engineered to spread like seasonal flu, hundreds of millions of lives would be at risk, a scientist told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Thursday.

“What happens if a mammalian transmissible H5N1 flu starts to spread?" Thomas Inglesby, CEO and director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, asked rhetorically in his testimony.

"Seasonal flu affects 10 to 20 percent of the world every year--as much as a billion people or more," said Inglesby. "The case fatality rate of wild H5N1 in the WHO database is nearly 60 percent, as you indicated. So if a strain of H5N1 with that fatality rate were engineered to spread like seasonal flu, hundreds of millions of people’s lives would be at risk. Even a strain a hundred times less fatal would place at risk millions of people’s lives."

The National Institute of Health released its policy last month on dual-use research, which is designed to implement recommendations made in a 2003 National Academy of Sciences report titled, “Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism.” Concern has grown recently over advances in the field of biotechnology, in which scientists have created synthetic viruses in laboratories.

Inglesby said mistakes can be made in laboratories, like the one in 1977 when “H1N1 caused a mini-pandemic, probably from a lab escape.”

“Nine years ago during SARS, there were at least three incidents in which researchers working in BL-3 or BL-4 labs in Singapore, Taiwan and China accidentally infected themselves with SARS,” Inglesby said. “We have to factor the possibility of human error, surprise and accidents into our calculations of the risk of this research,” he said.

During the hearing on biological security and dual-use research, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Americans have the right to expect that their money, which funds scientific research intended for the “common good,” will not be used to facilitate terrorism.

She said research done by the National Institutes of Health and conducted in Wisconsin and the Netherlands, which resulted in genetic changes to a strain of avian flu that allowed its airborne transmissibility, is expected to be published in two academic journals.

The National Science Advisory Board for National Security, a government advisory board, recommended in December that part of the information be withheld for security reasons, but it has since reversed that decision and advocated full publication of the research done in Wisconsin and a revised paper on the research performed in the Netherlands.

The board’s decision and reversal “have been part of a larger debate within the scientific and national security communities, and there are important arguments being made on both sides,” Collins said.

“When the American people pay for scientific research intended for the common good, they have a right to expect that their money will not be used to facilitate terrorism. These are not hypothetical threats,” Collins added.

“Before he was killed, Anwar al-Awlaki reportedly sought poisons to attack the United States. Adding to these concerns, the new leader of al Qaeda has a medical background. Therefore, he may have an even greater interest in pursuing chemical and biological terrorism,” she said.

Collins acknowledged, however, that “there is a legitimate concern about government censorship that could chill academic freedom and scientific inquiry or even limit the sharing of information necessary to save lives or improve public health.”

“Can we assure this research won’t be replicated and deliberately misused? No. We can hope no potential adversary will have the competence or the intention to pursue this. But we can’t accurately predict their chances this work will be replicated by a malevolent or disaffected scientist somewhere in the world, or a terrorist group, or nation state,” Inglesby said.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said “seasonal and pandemic influenza is an ongoing threat to public health worldwide and is among the leading global causes of death due to infectious diseases.”

Fauci testified that the seasonal flu is responsible for 200,000 hospitalizations each year and up to 49,000 deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It results in 3 million to 5 million cases of severe illness annually and leads to an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 deaths annually, according to the WHO.

“What happens if a mammalian transmissible H5N1 flu starts to spread? Seasonal flu affects 10 to 20 percent of the world every year – as much as a billion people or more. The case fatality rate of wild H5N1 in the WHO database is nearly 60 percent, as you indicated, so if a strain of H5N1 with that fatality rate were engineered to spread like seasonal flu, hundreds of millions of people’s lives would be at risk. Even a strain a hundred times less fatal would place at risk millions of people’s lives,” Inglesby said.

Daniel Gerstein, deputy under secretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security, testified that “DHS monitors researcher access to DHS facilities and sensitive information technology systems through security clearances and personnel suitability screening to manage levels of access to these facilities and sensitive technology systems.”

“Government grants recipients are required to immediately notify DHS if sensitive information or products are created or discovered during the course of research. In general, DHS does not provide grant recipients sensitive information,” Gerstein said.

However, “in the rare circumstance where DHS does provide sensitive information to performers under grants or cooperative agreements, performers are bound by non-disclosure provisions,” he said.