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The report outlines in broad terms the methods that could be used to develop a manmade strain of influenza capable of triggering a human flu pandemic. It notes a method called "passaging," while not entirely predictable, could be a "potentially highly effective" way to push a virus to develop virulence. "Such forced antigenic shifts could be attempted in a biological weapons program," says the 15-page report, dated Dec. 8, 2004. Passaging involves the repeated cycling of strains of a virus through generations of a species of animals or through cell culture. The process can be used to either ratchet up or dial down the virulence of a virus, depending on which of the ensuing offspring - the mild or the severe - are selected in each cycle for the next passage.
The report also raises the spectre of a pandemic strain engineered in a laboratory using reverse genetics. That technically challenging process allows scientists to custom tailor a flu virus, taking genes from a virulent but not highly transmissible strain, for instance, and melding them with genes from a virus that transmits well from person to person.