Is this research too dangerous?

January 28, 2013 —

What if you were a scientist who wanted to investigate ways to counter a deadly virus, but the only way you could do so is if you created it?

Electron microscope image of H5N1 viruses (gold) in a cell culture. Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Electron microscope image of H5N1 viruses (gold) in a cell culture. Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That was the question that circulated late last week when scientists announced that research on H5N1, an apparently unusually deadly bird flu virus, was going to begin again in some labs. Researchers had voluntarily halted such investigations in 2011, after there was a huge outcry that a deadly pandemic could break out if the mutant virus leaked out of the lab accidentally or if terrorists stole it or made it themselves, reported The New York Times on Friday.

Scientists involved with the research say adequate safety rules are in place to contain the virus. That won’t happen yet in the U.S., which has not released new safety guidelines.

According to The New York Times article, H5N1 does not often infect people, and so far it has rarely spread from person to person. “People who fall ill nearly always have caught it from poultry,” the article noted. “But flu viruses mutate a lot, and the fear has been that H5N1 will somehow become more contagious in humans.”

Studying the virus, research advocates say, will help scientists recognize changes in naturally occurring viruses that are dangerous and could lead to development of more effective vaccines and antiviral drugs.

What do you think? Are these researchers doing important work or playing with fire – or something even more dangerous?


Endlessly curious and easily entertained, Barb Dietrich Boose loves being a member of the friendly, fascinating DMU community and its creative communications team. The University's publications director and DMU Magazine editor, Barb is always on the hunt for story ideas, good books and new recipes to try out on her family, such as her surprisingly tasty pork-and-bean bars.