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Published On: Fri, May 3rd, 2013

Chinese researchers make hybrid H5N1-H1N1 influenza strain thats easily transmissible, critics call it ‘appalling irresponsibility’

We remember just a year or two ago when researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and Erasmus MC in Rotterdam created mutated Avian influenza strains that could spread between ferrets and the subsequent uproar it caused.

Shall we say deja vu?

H5N1 avian influenza Image/CDC

H5N1 avian influenza
Image/CDC

Now scientists from China’s Harbin Veterinary Research Institute report creating a  avian H5N1 (highly pathogenic) and pandemic 2009 H1N1 (easily transmissible) hybrid, that according to them, achieved airborne spread between guinea pigs.

Their research paper was published online yesterday in the journal, Science.

What Chen Hualan and the research team did was create 127 reassortant viruses between a duck isolate of H5N1, specifically retaining its hemagglutinin (HA) gene throughout, and a highly transmissible, human-infective H1N1 virus. We tested the virulence of the reassortants in mice as a correlate for virulence in humans, and tested transmissibility in guinea pigs, which have both avian and mammalian types of airway receptor.

What they found was  both polymerase PA gene and nonstructural protein NS gene of H1N1 virus made the H5N1 virus transmissible by respiratory droplet between guinea pigs, without death, demonstrating avian H5N1 subtype viruses do have the potential to acquire mammalian transmissibility by reassortment in current agricultural scenarios.

According to Martin Enserink on sciencemag.org, the paper is another example of so-called gain-of-function studies, a controversial field in which researchers deliberately manipulate viruses in ways that can make them more dangerous.

Of course, much like the research published last year, this research is not without criticism. Lord May of Oxford, a former government chief scientist and past president of the Royal Society, denounced the study saying, “They claim they are doing this to help develop vaccines and such like. In fact the real reason is that they are driven by blind ambition with no common sense whatsoever.”  

“The record of containment in labs like this is not reassuring. They are taking it upon themselves to create human-to-human transmission of very dangerous viruses. It’s appallingly irresponsible,” he said.

CIDRAP reports that Simon Wain-Hobson, PhD, a professor at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and an opponent of gain-of-function experiments said this study, along with the earlier ones by Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka, DVM, PhD, show that many different starting points and different experimental protocols can lead to a flu virus capable of airborne transmission. He said it’s impossible to predict the pathway that might lead to a pandemic flu virus in nature.

“Which evolutionary trajectory will nature take?” he said. “We don’t know because there are simply too many. So what is the use [of the findings] for surveillance?”

“What we learn [from the H5N1 transmissibility studies in general] is that qualitatively flu can exploit a huge fraction of sequence space and can adapt to almost anything given time,” Wain-Hobson said. “But this we knew, not only from flu work, but also from RNA virology in general. . . . The benefits are general knowledge which we basically knew, while the risks are increased by this work.”

Proponents of gain-of-function studies like the Erasmus study and this current one say they are needed to better gauge pandemic risks.

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About the Author

- Writer, Co-Founder and Executive Editor of The Global Dispatch. Robert has been covering news in the areas of health, world news and politics for a variety of online news sources. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the website, Outbreak News Today and hosts the podcast, Outbreak News Interviews on iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify Robert is politically Independent and a born again Christian Follow @bactiman63

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