Perhaps the most intriguing comments came from Australian scientist Ian Ramshaw, who suggested that the Fouchier or Kawaoka papers could serve as bioterrorism blueprints: "As a researcher you do the good thing, but in the wrong hands it could be used for evil. In this case I'm not so worried about bioterrorism. It's the disgruntled researcher who is dangerous -- the rogue scientist," Ramshaw warned, according to the Canberra Times. Ten years ago Ramshaw accidentally made a superkiller form of mousepox, the rodent version of smallpox, in his Australian National University laboratory. He injected lab mice with the pox virus to test out a completely unrelated contraceptive vaccine, but the experiment transformed the virus into a deadly monster with a 100 percent fatality rate. In 2001 Ramshaw's work spurred high-level concern about the use of genetically modified smallpox by a rogue nation or terrorist group, launching the vigorous, multibillion-dollar post-9/11 American smallpox vaccine effort, as detailed in my new book, I Heard the Sirens Scream.
Within two years of Ramshaw's accidental mousepox creation, separate labs deliberately created viruses. In 2002, researchers at the State University of New York in Stony Brook built a polio virus from its genetic blueprint. This constituted a proof of principle, demonstrating that in a sufficiently skilled laboratory, all that is required to make a deadly virus is its nucleotide sequence -- details of which are now routinely published for everything from anthrax to the Ebola virus. At the time, Eckard Wimmer, the lead scientist on the project, warned: "The world had better be prepared. This shows you can re-create a virus from written information."
The following year another scientific team deliberately mimicked Ramshaw's mousepox accident, not only with the rodent form of pox but also with pox viruses that infect rabbits and cows. And in 2005 the CDC famously joined fragments of RNA from thawed tissue of victims of the 1918 flu, re-creating the original superkiller.
The Genie Is Out of the Bioterrorism and Pandemic Bottles: How Scared Should We Be?
This April, a team of CDC scientists published word that it had tried to manipulate H5N1 genes to render the avian virus a human-to-human spreader, but could not make it work. The team used a different method from the one apparently deployed by Fouchier and Kawaoka's team: The CDC group directly altered the genes of viruses, rather than sequentially infecting ferret after ferret. The CDC concluded, "An improvement in transmission efficiency was not observed with any of the mutants compared to the parental viruses, indicating that alternative molecular changes are required for H5N1 viruses to fully adapt to humans and to acquire pandemic capability."
That seemed comforting.
But in 2007 a different CDC team did to the SARS virus what Fouchier apparently has done to H5N1, with lethal results. Just as Fouchier produced highly infectious bird flu in ferrets by sequentially infecting one group of animals after another, the CDC group passed the SARS virus through one group of mice after another. Mice are normally harmlessly infected by SARS, which cannot cause disease in the rodents. But after 15 such passages, the team got a 100 percent fatal form of the virus. Moreover, it was an airborne killer, sniffed out the air. (SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, killed more than 900 people worldwide in 2002 and 2003, mostly in China.)
The University of Minnesota's Michael Osterholm, an expert on both bioterrorism and pandemics, thinks that understanding how animals might pass a virus like SARS or H5N1 among themselves, in a fashion in nature that mimics the laboratory experiments, may hold a vital key to predicting future epidemics. "We don't want to give bad guys a road map on how to make bad bugs really bad," he recently told Science reporter Martin Enserink. Health experts, however, do applaud the controversial research because it shows which mutations are necessary and at least one way they might arise.