One of the most controversial genetically altered microbes ever created was unveiled Wednesday — complete with instructions on how to engineer the hybrid flu virus in the lab.
The details, published in the journal Nature, have been under wraps for months because of fears they might be misused by bioterrorists.
The virus was created by a team led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The microbe and a second, even more contentious one engineered by Dutch researchers have triggered intense international debate about the creation of “doomsday” viruses in the lab.
“There is a lot of anxiety in the air,” said flu expert Earl Brown of the University of Ottawa, who is relieved freedom of scientific information has won out.
Brown said it was almost anti-climatic to finally see the details, but Kawaoka’s team does deliver “lots of flash and dash.”
Wednesday’s highly technical report describes how Kawaoka and his Japanese colleagues engineered a hybrid flu that indicates H5N1, the much-feared avian flu virus, has the potential to spread in mammals and cause a human pandemic.
Working in a secure lab, the researchers took a gene from H5N1 and gave it to H1N1, the flu virus that caused the human pandemic in 2009. The researchers then played with the hybrid in the lab to create four mutations that are contagious in ferrets, which are considered good proxies for humans.
The researchers “demonstrate that H5N1 viruses do have the potential to cause a human pandemic,” says a report accompanying the study in Nature.