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 Science, College 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.