For scientists who study a dangerous form of bird flu, 2012 is ending as it began — with uncertainty about what the future holds for their research, but a hope that some contentious issues will soon be resolved.
Last January, dozens of flu experts around the world agreed to what was supposed to be a 60-day pause in controversial experiments on the H5N1 bird flu virus. But none of them resumed work as planned because all year long, the debate over the benefits and the risks just wasn't going away.
Virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands says he reluctantly went along with the moratorium, "but I've not been a great advocate of it because there is urgency in this type of research."
Fouchier gets funding from the National Institutes of Health to study H5N1, which is widespread in poultry in parts of Asia and the Middle East.
H5N1 rarely infects humans, but more than half of those known to have gotten sick with it have died. Scientists have long wanted to know if this bird flu could mutate in a way that could make the virus start spreading between people and cause a pandemic.
So Fouchier's lab experimented with the virus and found that certain genetic changes did make it capable of spreading through the coughs and sneezes of ferrets, which are the lab stand-ins for people.
This discovery provided important new clues about how future pandemics might emerge from nature. But at the same time, the findings were basically the recipe for creating a superflu — one that might kill millions.