Conspiracy theorists believe that scientists know there are terrible man-made viruses that may be deliberately or accidentally unleashed on the world's population, and that the H5N1 virus is merely a smokescreen.
It's been documented that American scientists have genetically reconstructed the deadly Spanish flu virus, which was so virulent that it killed even fit young adults rather than the usual elderly and infirm. Work on resurrecting the virus began as far back as the 1950s, when scientists tried unsuccessfully to retrieve it from victims buried in the Alaskan permafrost. In the mid-1990s, Dr Jeffrey Taubenberger, from the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, screened tissue samples from the victims of the 1918 outbreak. He worked on lung tissue from a 21-year-old soldier who died at Fort Jackson, and discovered intact pieces of viral RNA for analysis (Science, 1997; 275: 1793-6).
Other scientists continued what Taubenberger had begun and, by 2002, four of the eight viral RNA segments he had recovered had been sequenced in their entirety, including the two that are thought to be the most important for the virulence of the virus: the genes for haemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA) (J Virol, 2002; 76: 10717-23).
The tests were carried out under the strictest security by the US Department of Agriculture in Athens, Georgia, and vials of the virus have since been moved to an undisclosed location, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has announced.
But a watchdog group, the Sunshine Project, claims that this is simply not true. It says that vials of the deadly virus have been sent to five laboratories, including one in Canada. The Sunshine Project claims that none of the laboratories, other than the one in Winnipeg, is completely secure, and fail to meet the rigid requirements set out in the biological safety level-4 (BSL-4) code for biological containment.
The biodefence programme has already witnessed several laboratory accidents, including the mishandling of anthrax and plague, and there is one instance of laboratory-acquired infection from tularaemia (caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis), a zoonosis that can be caught by humans from animals. A researcher in Russia contracted the fear-inspiring Ebola virus while working on it in 2004, and later died.
Researchers know that it wouldn't take much to spark a pandemic. Influenza viruses can be transmitted via a standard aerosol can, and just a few samples of a virulent virus would be enough to trigger a pandemic (J R Soc Med, 2003; 96: 345-6).