Health See Inside Is Bird Flu Waiting to Explode? By concocting bird flu viruses that could potentially spread easily among humans, researchers have ignited a debate about the need for safety versus open inquiry By Fred Guterl Photoillustration by Kyle Bean and Sam Hofman The chickens were already getting sick when Yoshihiro Kawaoka arrived in the U.S. in August 1983. A few months before, in April, a bird flu virus had arisen in the poultry farms of eastern Pennsylvania, but veterinarians had deemed it to be “low pathogenic”—meaning it made chickens sick but did not kill many of them. As the virus swept through the poultry farms, however, a new strain developed. Chickens began to die in large numbers, and farmers started to fear for their livelihoods. The state called in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which set up a temporary command and control center in a strip mall outside of Lancaster. To contain the epidemic, it culled 17 million birds from Pennsylvania down through Virginia. Kawaoka was a young researcher from Japan who was starting work at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. His boss, virologist Robert Webster, had a theory that human influenza viruses originate in bird populations—that they circulate harmlessly among ducks and geese and that, every once in a while, a strain will evolve the ability to live in the human upper respiratory tract. To combat human influenza, Webster asserted, you first had to understand bird flu. In November, when Webster heard that the outbreak had become serious, he dropped everything and headed to its epicenter. This is only a preview. Get the rest of this article now! Select an option below: Buy Digital Issue Customer Sign In *You must have purchased this issue or have a qualifying subscription to access this content It has been identified that the institution you are trying to access this article from has institutional site license access to Scientific American on nature.com. Click here to access this article in its entirety through site license access. ADVERTISEMENT Scientific American is a trademark of Scientific American, Inc., used with permission © 2013 Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.