Wednesday, Apr. 18, 2012

Ron Fouchier

You can't tell if a virus is deadly just by looking at it. When virologists discover a new pathogen, one of the only current ways to take its measure is to put it into lab animals and see how it mutates and spreads. That works, but it can also lead to Frankenviruses that theoretically could escape the lab. A serious concern, hence the need to conduct the work in high-containment labs. So why do we mess around this way? Because it can also help keep us safe.

Ron Fouchier, 45, is one of a new breed of virologists who tackle these hard questions. By introducing the H5N1 bird-flu virus into lab ferrets, Fouchier and others this year created mutant versions that have the potential to spread in a mammal like us — which is exactly what we don't want it to do. Viruses like the one Fouchier cooked up may already exist in the wild. But knowing what it looks like may help us spot it and stop it. Over the past months regulators, academic journals and researchers have labored productively together to address the dangers — and benefits — of publishing the studies. The work is not without risks — but doing nothing is more dangerous still.

Wolfe is a virologist and the author of the book The Viral Storm