Scientists and public health workers are concerned the virus responsible for the Asian bird flu outbreaks could combine its genetic material with a human flu virus, thus generating a new human virus that no one would be immune to. If this were to happen, they say, we could face a global flu pandemic that could kill millions.
One way of finding out how likely this scenario is, would be to try to combine bird flu and human flu viruses in a laboratory. Such controversial 'reassortment' experiments have already been undertaken, then interrupted, in the United States, reports Martin Enserinik in this week's Science. Several nations, including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States, are considering launching new experiments.
Critics argue that to create a superflu virus that could accidentally or purposefully be released into the population is to take unnecessary risks. Proponents of the research agree that the studies would take place in very high security facilities, but concerns remain following the escape of SARS from three Chinese labs last year.
Reference: Science 305, 594 (2004)