Science and news cycles sometimes converge in unhandy ways. That was the case on on January 1, when word came out of Shenzen, a Chinese city bordering Hong Kong, that a 39-year-old bus driver, surnamed Chen, had died of the H5N1 (or bird flu) virus. The deeply personal tragedy for Chen and his family ought not to be such scary news for most other folks. Since 2003, there have been only 573 confirmed cases of H5N1, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and though 60% of the victims have died, that’s still a vanishingly tiny number of people in a global population of 7 billion. As long as the H5N1 virus doesn’t jump easily from person to person — which it manifestly does not — it will remain a danger only to those who happen to come in contact with infected poultry.
So little cause for worry, right? Not quite. Because less than two weeks ago, scientists also revealed that they had engineered a strain of bird flu that does make the jump among humans — or at least makes the jump between ferrets, which serve as good models for how humans become infected. The risk is not just that the virus could escape the lab, leading to some cheesy but not-so-implausible Michael Crichton-type sic-fi horror. Rather, the far more realistic risk is that the virus could fall into the hands of bioterrorists, who could unleash a flu pandemic similar to the 1918 Spanish flu that killed 50 million people. This danger is real enough that the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) took the unprecedented step of asking the journals Science and Nature not to publish their reports of the work — or at least to redact enough material to make it impossible for the bad guys to replicate the virus.