Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, wanted to better understand the deadly H5N1 avian flu that is already one of the scary viruses that keep researchers up at night.
Although H5N1 is largely confined to birds—only about 400 human cases have been reported according to the CDC—when humans do contract it, the virus is incredibly deadly. It kills about 60 percent of those infected. So medical experts have a huge incentive to try to understand how it works to try to prevent its spread.
But Fouchier's findings have proven so alarming to his fellow virologists and bioterrorism experts that many are urging him not to publish the results—and some are even claiming that he should never have done the research in the first place.
What could possibly be so scary for scientists to be afraid of the news getting out into the public?
It seems Fouchier was able to engineer a new super flu strain that required only five simple tweaks in the lab to change H5N1 avian flu into a highly contagious virus that he himself admits is "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make." One expert interviewed by ScienceInsider even said that anthrax "isn't scary at all compared to this."
As with almost all research, Fouchier has submitted the results for publication in the scientific press, and the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is reviewing his work. But many of his peers want to keep his work under wraps. Their worry: terrorists could weaponize the virus, which is currently locked in a vault in Rotterdam.
And for some researchers, medical ethics dictate that this was one experiment that shouldn't have even happened in the first place:
'It's just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus,' says Dr Thomas Inglesby, director for the Centre for Biosecurity at the Universuity of Pittsburgh.
Fourchier himself is keeping quiet until his research is actually published. One thing everyone can agree on, however: anyone who writes off the H5N1 avian flu as a minor concern better think twice.