It sounds like a movie, maybe one with a foreign enemy and an Army medic who’s miraculously immune to the very disease that’s killing everyone. But this is no movie, and as of yet, there’s no way to know if there’s a living human who could combat the mutant H5N1 avian flu strain locked up in a Rotterdam medical facility. According to virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center, this is “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.” That’s right: he said “make.” The virus is a genetically engineered strain of bird flu, one that’s particularly nasty and capable of mutating rapidly and efficiently. Even scarier, the virus is easily transmissible between ferrets, the animals that most closely mimic the human response to flu.
“I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” says U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist who has many years’ experience with anthrax in the laboratory. “I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.” And the scariest part of all? Dr. Fouchier wants to publish a paper detailing the virus’s modification and how it was accomplished.
So let’s recap: Researchers engineer the scariest pathogen ever known to mankind. It’s locked in a building, but if it weren’t we’d all die pretty much immediately. And they want to publish the process in scientific journals. What could possibly go wrong!? It’s not like bioterrorism might be a concern, or for the conspiracy theorists, a move by Big Pharma to sell more vaccines. And what of human error, the only universally constant threat to our survival? We’re just apes, guys.
As expected, the ensuing media frenzy has everyone up in arms (Geeks Are Sexy admittedly included), and perhaps justifiably so: We’ve seen this movie, and it ends unhappily.
A controversial new tactic to wipe out dengue fever has scientists debating over how–and if–a genetically modified mosquito should be released into diseased native mosquito populations. The GMO insects breed with the “real” ones, and the offspring die quickly because they refuse to feed, mate or fly. The population crash would dramatically reduce the spread of dengue fever in areas where funding for barrier methods (mosquito netting, still-water cleanup) is hard to procure. But there’s a problem: While one group of the modified bugs has been tested in cages in Mexico, another group was secretly released into wild populations. The consequences of introducing a new organism into an existing ecology are uncertain–but what happens when the new insect is a mutant? The potential for disaster is hard to calculate.
Read more: The Wipeout Gene on Scientific American