H5N1 – The Great Debate

In 2009 we experienced a global pandemic. The H1N1 influenza spread so quickly many were unprepared. The virus has caused 18,000 deaths to date.

18,000 deaths is a staggering number, but not when you realise that the virus caused 600 thousand infections, a fatality rate of .03%. Although it spread easily from human to human, it was not very deadly overall.

As a leader in emergency preparedness, Iridia has worked with many organizations to develop their pandemic plans. In most cases these plans had to be created from scratch as a pandemic is a state of emergency, of which many were unprepared. These plans consisted of:

• Communication tools and protocols
• Human resources policies
• Vaccine and antiviral usage
• Personal protective equipment strategies
• Infection control measures

Throughout the H1N1 pandemic, it became clear that our society was not ready. But what would happen if it had been worse?


In contrast to the H1N1, the H5N1 avian influenza has a very hard time spreading from human to human. But once an individual has become infected, it has a 60% fatality rate. To put that in perspective, if the H1N1 virus was that deadly, it would have caused 360 thousand deaths (20x more).

h5n1 virus

H5N1 Virus

It took some time, but after months of debate and controversy, research (you can search for it online) describing how to transform the deadly H5N1 in a human-contagious form was published in May 2012.

The study has made headlines around the world since 2011. A debate quickly heated up. Many were concerned about broadcasting potentially lethal information to would-be bioterrorists who might use the information to set off a pandemic.

In December, it was recommended by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) that the study not be published in full. An expert panel convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) later disagreed with the decision, which paved way for publication.

“Given the possibility of accidental escape from the lab — not too uncommon events — the risks seem to me enormous, while the benefits are very small,” said Richard Roberts, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who now works at New England Biolabs.

Conversely, over the last several months, many objections to the research have frequently been called uninformed. “Fear needs to be put to rest with solid science and not speculation,” wrote microbiologist Peter Palese of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

There are two sides to every debate. Through research we undoubtedly gain a better understanding of viruses and in turn we discover clues that can lead to vaccines. But do these deadly “recipes” need to make the rounds for everyone to see?

Want more details? Read the story here: Sciencemag

What do you think?

[polldaddy poll=6213924]