Virologists To Manufacture More Dangerous H7N9 Bird Flu
August 8, 2013

Virologists To Manufacture More Dangerous H7N9 Bird Flu

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Researchers are planning to create deadlier and more highly transmissible versions of the H7N9 bird flu with the hope they will be able to predict how it will mutate and determine whether or not there is a risk that it could result in a pandemic, various media outlets reported on Wednesday.

According to Reuters Health and Science Correspondent Kate Kelland, virologists Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka are leading a team of 22 scientists who are working to create mutant forms of H7N9 to help prepare for the potential threat posed by the virus.

H7N9 bird flu was first detected in humans in February and since then the World Health Organization (WHO) reports it has already killed 43 people and infected at least 130 others. The risk of the disease would increase "exponentially" if it began to spread from human to human more readily, the researchers told Kelland, and the only way to tell if that could happen is to simulate how the virus would mutate in laboratory conditions.

"It's clear this H7N9 virus has some hallmarks of pandemic viruses, and it's also clear it is still missing at least one or two of the hallmarks we've seen in the pandemic viruses of the last century. So the most logical step forward is to put in those (missing) mutations first," Fouchier, who represents Erasmus University in the Netherlands, told Kelland.

"We cannot prevent epidemics or pandemics, but we can accumulate critical knowledge ahead of time," he added in a separate interview with the Associated Press (AP).

Detailing his team's plans in the latest editions of the journals Nature and Science, Fouchier said that the research will help various nations learn how to prepare and respond to a bird flu epidemic.

This type of research is known as a gain-of-function study, and according to PopSci's Francie Diep, they tend to be controversial in nature. While scientists commonly devote time and resources studying diseases, Diep explained that gain-of-function studies actually make the pathogens responsible for those diseases more dangerous.

"When scientists wanted to publish the first gain-of-function studies of H5N1 avian flu in 2011, public outcry led them to stop further studies for more than a year," she said. "In short, it's a question of whether the risk is worth the knowledge we gain about epidemic flus.

"Opponents worry that the ability-added viruses could escape from labs by accident and infect people. They also worry that terrorists could use published papers about the studies as recipes for bioweapons," Diep added. "Proponents say the studies offer information that experiments on viruses in their natural state don't. For example, researchers will test how many changes are needed to make H7N9 spread more easily than it currently does, to help them predict whether such a change is likely to happen naturally."

Fouchier and Kawaoka, a researcher with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, made the announcement due to the controversy surrounding their previous gain-of-function study. That research involved the creation of more transmissible strains of the H5N1 bird flu, but when they went to publish their findings, the public outcry forced health officials from the US and WHO to order a moratorium on such work.

The concern was that, in the wrong hands, the research could essentially serve as a how-to guide for bioterrorists looking to replicate the mutated bird flu and use it as a powerful weapon. Ultimately, the research was published, and the researchers said they want to explain their objectives and risk-management strategies ahead of time.

"The Obama administration already had tightened oversight of research involving dangerous germs," according to AP. "Wednesday, the US Department of Health and Human Services announced an extra step: In addition to scientific review, researchers who propose creating easier-to-spread strains of the new H7N9 will have to pass a special review by a panel of experts who will weigh the risks and potential benefits of the work."

Fouchier told Kelland his team will be working in what is known as a Bio-Safety Level 3 (BSL3) Enhanced laboratory -- the highest level of biosecurity possible for academic researchers.

"Nature is the biggest threat to us, not what we do in the lab. What we do in the lab is under very intense biosecurity measures," he added. "There are layers upon layers of layers of biosafety measures such that if one layer might break there are additional layers to prevent this virus ever coming out."