Researchers concerned about the latest deadly strain of bird flu have hit upon a surprising solution for countering the virus: Making it even more powerful. And despite a public outcry, they intend to go through with that plan.
Two scientists have proposed a whole range of experiments on the H7N9 strain of bird flu, which has killed 43 people in Asia since it broke out in March. In papers published this week in the journals Science and Nature, the two scientists, Ron Fouchier, of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it was necessary to experiment with the virus to find out how it functions, and to learn how it can be kept in check.
"We cannot prevent epidemics or pandemics, but we can accumulate critical knowledge ahead of time," Fouchier told the Associated Press.
To study the virus, they proposed mutating it in a number of "gain-of-function" experiments, meaning tests that would give the strain new advantageous properties, like a resistance to drugs or a faster transmission ability. That would, in effect, create a synthetic superflu even more powerful — and more deadly — than the original.
That has many in the scientific community understandably nervous, since they fear a super-resistant, super-powerful flu could pose a catastrophic public health risk should it escape the lab. Think a Dr. Frankenstein-inspired horror story, but on a biological level.
"The scientific justification presented for doing this work is very flimsy, to put it mildly, and the claims that it will lead to anything useful are lightweight," Adel Mahmoud, an infectious disease researcher at Princeton, told Science.
Fouchier and Kawaoka already performed similar experiments on the H5N1 strain of bird flu back in 2011, drawing outrage from parts of the scientific community in the process. The National Institutes of Health, concerned that those studies could be used toward ill ends, even asked that parts of them be redacted.
"While the public health benefits of such research can be important, certain information obtained through such studies has the potential to be misused for harmful purposes," the NIH said in a statement.
The spread of the H7N9 flu, which has a mortality rate of around 30 percent, has been partially mitigated because it cannot spread easily between humans. Yet the researchers were able to mutate H5N1 to pass between mammals — in that case, ferrets — so there is some concern a similar mutation with the latest strain could prove very dangerous.
Given the delicate nature of the experiments, the scientists will be working under governmental supervision. The Department of Health and Human Services said on Wednesday that, in addition to the already-tightened regulations put in place after the 2011 tests, the researchers would have to run their proposed work by a special panel of experts for approval.