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The Potential Threat of H5N1Bird Flu & Bioterrorism

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Hundred of millions of lives would be at risk if H5N1 bird flu (which has a fatality rate of 60%) were manipulated to spread like seasonal flu.  This is according to a scientist who consulted with the Senate Homeland Security Committee last week.

If this mammalian transmissible H5N1 does begin to spread?  According to Thomas Inglesby who is the CEO and director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburg Medical Center:

“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 also addressed the fact that laboratory mistakes do happen, such as the one that occurred in 1977 during which H1N1 caused a mini-pandemic.  This was most likely due to 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.  We have to factor the possibility of human error, surprise and accidents into our calculations of the risk of this research.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said, during the hearing on biological security and dual-use research, that “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.”

Inglesby elaborates on the potential for abuse:

“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.”

“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.”

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It just so happens that a few months ago, it was reported that a Dutch scientist, while engaged in US-backed biodefense research, was able to modify an avian flu strain into a more virulent version of the lethal virus.

The amount of devastation that can occur with biotechnology is considerable.

Technology has advanced to a level at which biological weapons can be created by using the latest advances in synthetic biology.   This process, which was originally about reading DNA is now about both reading and writing DNA.

ImpactLab.Net contends that this “opens up a Pandora’s Box of problems. Security futurist Marc Goodman says that synthetic biology will lead to new forms of bioterrorism — opportunities for the bad guys to create never-before-seen forms of bio-toxins. These bio-threats might be nearly impossible to detect because they can be customized to the genome of a certain person or groups of people. Goodman, who has long worked on cyber crime and terrorism with organizations such as Interpol and the United Nations, believes the potential bio-threat is greatly underestimated. ‘Bio-crime today is akin to computer crime in the early 1980s,’ said Goodman at the Singularity University executive program this week. ‘Few initially recognized the problem, but one need only observe how the threat grew exponentially over time.'”

Ultimately, terrorists will not be limited to mass attacks with biological weapons.  They will also be able to target specific individuals based on those individuals’ own unique DNA.

For more information, read “Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism.”

-Candice Lanier

 

 

 

 



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