In Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, scientists in hazmat suits work against the clock in high-security research facilities, trying to break the code of a new virus claiming tens of millions of lives worldwide. That scenario is not some Hollywood fiction: As Reuters reports, scientists have successfully mutated the H5N1 bird flu virus into a form as deadly as the one depicted in the movie. The World Health Organization, disturbed by what they've seen and wanting more information, have asked that the journals Nature and Science not publish their reports on the work, fearing "it could be used by bioterrorists." At an international meeting of flu experts in Geneva, Keiji Fukuda, a representative for WHO, asked they hold off until a "deeper risk analyses" was undertaken.
"There is a preference from a public health perspective for full disclosure of the information in these two studies. However there are significant public concerns surrounding this research that should first be addressed," said...Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security and environment.
Nevertheless, both journals are planning to publish the research in full, The New York Times reports:
Most of the group felt that any theoretical risk of the virus’s being used by terrorists was far outweighed by the “real and present danger” of similar flu viruses in the wild, and by the need to study them and freely share information that could help identify the exact changes that might signal that a virus is developing the ability to cause a pandemic, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who represented the United States at the meeting.
The bioengineered virus, created by independent teams working in The Netherlands and the U.S., has the capability of igniting a pandemic more severe than the 1918-19 outbreak of Spanish flu -- which was depicted on U.S. television this week in popular British period drama, Downton Abbey. That flu claimed up to 40 million people.
Photo: "A Health Department official culls a bird from a poultry farm after bird flu virus was detected in Bhubaneswar, India, Sunday, Feb, 5, 2012."