Hey everybody: cool your jets on the whole supervirus thing

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Many of you probably read last week about a supervirus, engineered by dutch virologist Ron Fouchier, that has the potential to wipe out half of humanity.

Is the virus potentially dangerous? Absolutely. Could it really kill off half the world's population? That... isn't exactly likely. And scientists in support of Fouchier think that a much more important question is: what are the odds that a flu strain that's never even been inside a laboratory does adapt into something lethal enough to become the next plague?


The answer to this questions is far from clear, which is why research like Fouchier's is actually incredibly important, and worthy of level-headed consideration. Over at The Loom, Carl Zimmer has written an excellent post about what's really going on when it comes to apocalyptic-virus research. Zimmer writes:

The idea that someone could intentionally design a super-lethal virus from scatch–as plausible as it may seem–is, for now, a delusion.

If you've been following the news this past week, you may think I've just been proven wrong. Reports have surfaced about two teams of scientists producing flu viruses that could potentially kill millions if they escaped from the labs. The scientists have the viruses locked up tight for now, and government officials are debating whether they can publish their results.

So is this evidence that scientists have become viral Frankensteins, who can engineer pathogens at will? Hardly.

The new research is part of a long-running struggle to understand how new flu strains arise. It's clear that all flu viruses that infect humans ultimately evolved from viruses that infect birds. From time to time, people can pick up these viruses, which infect their airway. Depending on the strain, bird flu may be harmless or lethal to humans. But for the most part, it can't get from one human to another. It's too well adapted for life in birds.

On rare occasion, a bird flu does manage to adapt to humans. It may experience natural selection, it may pick up some genes from human flu viruses, or both. Scientists are still trying to figure out what it takes for a flu virus to make this transition. It's an important question, not just as a matter of fundamental biology but as a matter of global health. When new bird flus jump to humans, we lack immune defenses against them, and they can thus cause worldwide pandemics.

Flu experts have had their eye on one strain of bird flu in particular for a while now: H5N1. It's proven extraordinarily lethal, and yet, since it first came to light in 1997, it hasn't managed to make the big leap and start spreading from person to person. If you get H5N1, you're in big trouble. But not many people get it. Yet.

Does this mean that H5N1 just doesn't have what it takes to become the next great pandemic? Or does it mean the virus simply hasn't evolved the right recipe yet?


That's something we don't know the answer to yet — but it's investigations like those of Fouchier that are likely to find the answer. Read the rest of Zimmer's post over on The Loom. You'll find another really even-handed take on Fouchier's research over on Science.

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