In 2011, sci­en­tists suc­cess­fully engi­neered a lethal avian flu virus to be trans­mis­sible between birds as well as mam­mals and pos­sibly humans. The novel virus, a genet­i­cally engi­neered vari­a­tion of H5N1 avian influenza, sparked an enor­mous debate among both the research com­mu­nity and the public about how to manage such research and whether it should even be car­ried out at all.

That’s where North­eastern stepped in. “We thought it was impor­tant to pro­vide some hard num­bers to the debate,” said Alessandro Vespig­nani, a world-​​renowned sta­tis­tical physi­cist and the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Professor.

In a paper released Thursday in the journal BMC Med­i­cine, Vespig­nani and his col­lab­o­ra­tors pro­vide those hard numbers—and they aren’t ter­ribly reas­suring. “This study pro­vides a very accu­rate mod­eling approach to assess the prob­a­bility of con­tain­ment in the case of acci­dental escape,” explained Vespig­nani, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­enceCol­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, and Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences. “Unfor­tu­nately there are large chances that the out­break will not be contained.”

Vespig­nani and his research team used census data from the city of Rot­terdam in the Nether­lands to create a com­pu­ta­tional model that tracked how an exper­i­mental virus would spread if it were acci­den­tally released from a facility oper­ating at a biosafety level of 3 or 4. These labs carry out the most health haz­ardous bio­log­ical research in the world and are often located in pop­u­lous urban areas.

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