Naturally, it is not the sort of work that can be done just anywhere.
The Erasmus team has one of Europe’s most secure laboratories — a so-called Enhanced BSL3, or Bio-Safety Level 3, lab — the highest level of biosecurity for academic research and a facility in which agents can be studied that cause “serious or lethal disease,” but do not ordinarily spread between people and for which treatments or preventives exist.
The highest level, BSL4, requires military guard and applies to pathogens for which there are no preventives or treatments.
Fouchier, one of only six people with security clearance to enter the Rotterdam lab, says that despite the presence of mutant viruses, he feels safer there than walking in the street.
“You need special keys to get in. You go though various changes of clothes and through all sorts of interlocked rooms,” he said when a reporter visited the campus. “There are personal pin codes and additional security measures to get through the next series of doors. And there are cameras all over the place, watching you all the time, 24/7.”
Needless to say, media access to the laboratory itself is strictly forbidden.
Fouchier spent several years shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic arguing his case for conducting and publishing similar work on H5N1 bird flu, which so alarmed the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) that it took the unprecedented step of trying to censor publication.
The NSABB had said it feared details of the work could fall into the wrong hands and be used for bioterrorism.
A year-long moratorium on such research followed while the WHO, US security advisers and flu researchers sought ways to ensure the highest safety controls.
With those in place, the WHO satisfied and US research funders broadly agreed, Fouchier and 22 other scientists announced in August that they planned to end the moratorium, and the Dutch team say now is the time to get going.
“The easiest thing would be to back off and say: ‘OK, we won’t touch this anymore,’ but that’s not the right way to behave,” Osterhaus said. “As a scientist, you have a responsibility towards the public, and if we can prevent a pandemic from happening, that could save millions of lives.”