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Engineering a Highly Transmissible Flu Virus

Benefits of Work Don’t Outweigh the Risks

DECEMBER 15, 2011—Baltimore, MD—In an editorial published today, leaders at the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC warned that the recent work that resulted in a genetically engineered transmissible flu strain could have serious consequences. The editorial was posted ahead of print on the website of the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science. Two of the authors are coeditors-in-chief of the journal.

Scientists recently announced that they have genetically modified H5N1 in the laboratory and that this research strain is highly transmissible through the air. The work is under review for publication in a scientific journal, and the advisability of publishing this study is being debated by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB).

Thomas Inglesby, Anita Cicero, and D. A. Henderson, authors of the editorial, question the value and advisability of conducting such research. They argue that the potential benefits of such work do not outweigh the risks – among them the possibility of such an engineered virus escaping accidentally from a lab.

“I think it is exactly this kind of research that the National Research Council was concerned about in their 2004 report, Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism [the Fink Report], which listed a number of areas where scientists should exercise real caution,” notes Dr. Inglesby. “If we are going to take the kind of risks posed by this work, then the benefits must be very clear.”

The editorial, titled “The Risk of Engineering a Highly Transmissible H5N1 Virus,” by Thomas V. Inglesby, Anita Cicero, and D. A. Henderson, appears online ahead of print in the March 2012 issue of Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science, a peer-reviewed journal published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. ( The article is available free online at


Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science, published quarterly in print and online, covers topics such as bioscience, medical and public health preparedness and response, infrastructure and institutions, international collaborations, agroterror/food safety, infectious disease surveillance, and citizen response and responsibility in all matters related to national and international biosecurity. It provides an international forum for debate and exploration of the many key strategic, scientific, and operational issues posed by biological weapons, bioterrorism, and other major health-related events.

The Center for Biosecurity is an independent, nonprofit organization of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) whose mission is to strengthen national security by reducing the risks posed by biological attacks, epidemics, and other destabilizing events, and to improve the nation’s resilience in the face of such events.



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