Despite what we know about the good Professor Murphy and his law, an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports (in part) as follows. What's unclear is whether antiviral drugs cited in the article would be effective in preventing death should a killer virus somehow escape the BL-3 containment labs where the research is being conducted.
What health officials fear most about bird flu --- that it could trigger a pandemic by acquiring genes from a human flu virus and the ability to spread easily among people --- has not yet been known to happen naturally.
But scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta are playing out a scenario that could actually create the dreaded pandemic strain. The dangerous work is just getting under way in a high level biosecurity laboratory off Clifton Road.
The CDC's lab is thought to be the only one in the world where genes from a regular flu virus are being mixed with avian influenza, also known as H5N1.
"We're trying to understand, if this does occur in nature, what the properties of the viruses would be and how serious the pandemic might be," said Nancy Cox, chief of the CDC's influenza branch.
While the CDC research on the two flu viruses may create the pandemic strain, Cox said there's no threat to the public because the work is being carried out in tightly-sealed labs operating at enhanced biosafety level 3. That is near the top of the four-level biosecurity scale used for medical research labs.
Since H5N1 first jumped from chickens to humans in Hong Kong in 1997, all bird flu research at the CDC has been performed in enhanced BSL-3 labs to prevent the virus from escaping, Cox said.
Negative air pressure and special air filters protect the labs. Access is controlled by secure ID, and some equipment within the labs requires thumbprint or iris scanning. Scientists must disrobe, put on scrubs, use a personal air supply and shower upon leaving. Paperwork has to be faxed out and the originals destroyed.
"We're not even allowed to have pet birds [at home]," Cox said. "No one would want the H5N1 viruses to get into the environment and spread to birds in the United States."
Cox said the CDC decided the research did not require a BSL-4 lab --- the top level, which includes full body suits and a completely separate air supply --- because antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu are available for bird flu. BSL-4 is reserved for germs that have no treatment.