The next pandemic: Will it be created by man? The debate about research using killer viruses like Avian Flu (H5N1) and Ebola

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In this article I would like to discuss the next pandemic or global epidemic. I have deliberately chosen not to refer to the ‘possibility’ of a pandemic happening. Medical experts appear to agree that at some time in the future there will be a pandemic – the problem is that we do not know when or what kind of disease will be involved. However, much like the next big earthquake or tsunami in Japan, one day a pandemic will certainly occur and its effects will be devastating.

Should we be worried?

Yes. In 1918 the highly infectious influenza virus that caused the spanish flu pandemic only killed 2% of the people who contracted the disease. That small percentage soon added up to 50 million deaths. When the Avian Flu virus, H5N1, appeared it killed 10% of the 600 people who were reported with the disease. Fortunately that strain was not as easily transmitted from person to person as the Spanish Flu virus. If this remains the case the pandemic potential of this particular strain of the influenza would be limited.

However some people would like to change this. Within the scientific community there are those who would like to be able to carry out experiments on the H5N1 virus. They justify this on the grounds that we need to carry out research on such organisms to better understand how they work and perhaps derive information which could help us to better control the diseases they cause. However it is quite possible that through such research a variant of H5N1 might be created which is as infectious as the normal seasonal flu virus. If this happens, and the variant where able to ‘escape’ from its laboratory environment, the world’s population could be decimated.

This is a subject raised by three well-respected scientists in an article published by the Financial Times on 10th August (‘The dangerous folly of resuming avian flu research’ by Peter Hale, founder of the Foundation for Vaccine Research, Washington, DC., Simon Wain-Hobson, Professor in the Department of Molecular Retrovirology, Institute Pasteur, Paris, and Robert May, Professor in the Department of Zoology, Oxford University).

They point out that accidents do happen, even in the highest security biosafety laboratories (refered to as BSL-4 labs). These are the laboratories where research into H5N1 and other equally dangerous pathogens is normally carried out. Between 1978 and 1999 there were more than 1,200 incidents in which people were infected in BSL-4 labs. Since 1999 some laboratory workers have actually been killed by microbes such as Ebola and SARS viruses.

Take a look around you at your friends and family. A strain of Bird Flu which was capable of airborne transmission between humans might kill 10% of them. I witnessed SARS first hand about 10 years ago when I was the president of a company building a factory in an Asian swamp. This Corona virus also had a mortality rate of 10% but in people over 60 years of age this increased to 50%. Ebola has recently killed at least 16 people in Uganda. In total the World Health Organisation has recorded 1850 cases of Ebola of which 1200 were fatal. There are four sub-types of Ebola which cause disease in humans; the one in Uganda is the Sudan sub-type which has a mortality rate of approximately 50%. The Zaire sub-type is known to kill up to 90% of its victims. According to the Centre For Disease Control there is no standard treatment for Ebola hemorrhagic fever, patients simply receive ‘supportive therapy’. Ebola is contracted from animals but we do not know what the natural reservoir is. Once a person has the disease it can be transmitted between people through physical contact.

Any research that could potentially increase the risk of one of these viruses becoming more easily transmitted needs to be considered very carefully. The Scientists refered to above are calling for an indefinite moratorium on such high risk research and have clearly stated that they consider this research to be irresponsible; it should never have been undertaken in the past and should not be resumed.

A few months ago I wrote another article on pandemics providing more background for interested readers. For example, the bacterial pandemic known as Black Death (Bubonic Plague) killed an estimated 75 million people in the 14th Century. This was half of the human population at that time. Considering what is at stake the three gentlemen who wrote in the FT have a valid point which is worthy of careful consideration. If you are interested in my earlier article it can be found here.

Chris Duggleby

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