The suggestion by an Australian virologist that the new flu virus, H1N1 or swine flu, could have been the result of a laboratory accident has been dismissed by Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the deputy director general of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The suggestion, which grew into a rumour, was circulated by news outlets worldwide and was made by Dr. Adrian Gibbs, a virologist and a member of the team which developed the antiviral drug Tamiflu.
He has reportedly appeared on television in the United States suggesting that swine flu might have been created using eggs to grow viruses and make new vaccines, and could have been accidentally leaked to the general public.
Dr. Fukuda says Dr. Gibbs remarks were taken very seriously, but the evidence suggests that this is a naturally occurring virus, rather than a laboratory-derived virus.
Dr. Gibbs is a retired plant virologist from the Australian National University, who previously published work in the journal Science which questioned the now accepted idea, that the 1918 pandemic started as a bird flu.
It seems Dr. Gibbs studied the gene sequences of the swine flu virus posted on public data banks and he suggests that it was grown in eggs, the medium used in vaccine laboratories, because the new virus was not closely related to known ones and because it had more of the amino acid lysine and more mutations than typical strains of swine flu.
His theory apparently evoked scepticism and derision from scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) but was given a fair amount of media coverage which ran with the story and true to form embellished and magnified the suggestion and added speculation about bioterrorism.
But many feel just bringing the idea of laboratory security to the public's attention is important and it is worth remembering that the epidemic of Foot and Mouth disease in Britain in 2001 was eventually traced back to a missing vial from a research laboratory but in the meantime more than 6 million animals were culled to stop the spread of the outbreak.
Experts say that event resulted in lab security and regulations being tightened and improved and while Dr. Gibb's theory is technically plausible, it is very unlikely to have occurred.
According to Dr. Fukuda a WHO panel of experts concluded that “the hypothesis does not bear scrutiny because the lysine residues and mutation rates were typical and many swine flu appear unrelated because not enough pigs are tested each year".
Dr. Fukuda says he doubts that the rumour would prove to be damaging and he would not want genetic sequences kept off public databases - however persistent false rumours such as linking childhood immunisation shots to autism, can have devastating effects on controlling diseases.
While scientists have yet to accurately pinpoint the exact origin of the new swine flu the earliest cases in Mexico were found to contain genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia, as well as avian and human genes.
The H1N1 influenza virus is expected to dominate the WHO's annual 9 day conference in Geneva but will also shorten it so that the 193 health delegates can return home to deal with the looming pandemic.
According to the WHO to date the virus has spread to 33 countries, 6,497 cases have been reported and 65 people have died - 4,300 confirmed and probable cases, with 3 deaths, were reported in the United States.