Flu researchers plan to repeat controversial work

Having made H5N1 transmissible, scientists intend to do the same with H7N9

After stirring up controversy by creating airborne-transmissible versions of one deadly bird flu virus, scientists intend to do it again with another. This time, the experiments will involve H7N9, a new strain of avian influenza that infected 134 people in China this year, killing 43.

The experiments involve mutating the virus or mixing it with other flu viruses to create ones that can do things the existing virus can’t currently do, such as spread through the air from person to person. Information gained from the experiments could help scientists understand how bird flu adapts to live in people, the potential of the virus to cause a pandemic and how best to design vaccines and antiviral therapies, say Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and 20 coauthors. Similar research on the H5N1 virus by Fouchier and Kawaoka went unpublished for half a year due to concerns that terrorists could use the information to make a biological weapon.

The new announcement, published August 7 in both Nature and Science, is an attempt to be upfront about the research, Fouchier says. “With the H5N1 controversy, some people claimed we were not sufficiently transparent about what research we did, why we did it, and what risk mitigation measures were in place,” he says. “We would like to prevent such allegations this time.”

But the letter of intent has other virologists mystified about its purpose. The experiments the researchers propose are important and should be done, says Vincent Racaniello, a virologist at Columbia University. “I think they should just do them, and not talk about it,” he says. The letter “is going to be a big problem and stir up the bottom of the pond again.”

Fouchier says the researchers recognize that public outcry could follow the publication. “We do not want to step away from this debate,” he says. “The work that we propose is critically important, but if we want to continue this type of research, we need to engage in discussions with anyone who has doubts about it.”

Unfortunately, the tone of the letter doesn’t invite debate, says Michael Imperiale, a virologist at the University of Michigan. “They’re hoping this is going to make the work appear more transparent,” he says, but beyond influenza researchers, he says, the scientific community has not engaged in adequate discussions about whether such experiments should be done in the first place.

And Imperiale raises another concern shared by many in the public but largely dismissed by infectious disease researchers:  the fear that a lab-created pandemic virus could escape containment. “If this type of work proliferates, eventually there is going to be a lab accident,” he says. “It becomes a matter of statistics. I’m not saying these guys aren’t being incredibly careful. We know from past experience that lab accidents happen.”

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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