Published On: Wed, Aug 7th, 2013

Virologists Fouchier and Kawaoka want to do ‘controversial’ research on H7N9 bird flu to assess it’s ‘pandemic potential’

In a correspondence published in the journal, Nature, scientists Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and 20 others want to perform research on the avian influenza A(H7N9) virus to determine it’s “pandemic potential”, including experiments that may be classified as ‘gain of function’ (GOF).

The announcement is likely to revisit the similar “controversial” studies from 2011 where researchers, the same two in this correspondence, manipulated the H5N1 virus and made it more transmissible.

Fouchier, et al point out various aspects that require the additional research to include most importantly:

The A(H7N9) virus haemagglutinin protein has several motifs that are characteristic of mammalian-adapted and human influenza viruses, including mutations that confer human-type receptor binding and enhanced virus replication in mammals. The pandemic risk rises exponentially should these viruses acquire the ability to transmit readily among humans.

However, in an editorial in Nature today, the author writes:

A sense of perspective is crucial here. The long-term benefits of such work are clear — as long as it is done to the highest biosafety standards. It will shed light on, for example, the mechanisms of virus transmissibility and pathogenicity. But the immediate benefits to public health and our short-term ability to counter the threat of H7N9 are less clear-cut. Scientists cannot predict pandemics, so to assess the pandemic potential of viruses — and to decide which strains warrant the manufacture of trial vaccines — comes down to judgements of relative risk.


Under a high magnification, this negatively-stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM) captured some of the ultrastructural details exhibited by the new influenza A (H7N9) virus. Image/CDC

Under a high magnification, this negatively-stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM) captured some of the ultrastructural details exhibited by the new influenza A (H7N9) virus.

The Associated Press reported today the following concerning oversight of research saying  the Obama administration already had tightened oversight of research involving dangerous germs. Wednesday, the U.S. 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.

“There are strong arguments to do the science,” but it has to be done properly or not at all, said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, which will refer such projects to the special experts’ panel.

Related story: Prominent Virologist Defends The Chinese Hybrid H5N1-H1N1 Research, Calls It ‘Good Science’

University of Minnesota professor Michael Osterholm, who is critical of the research and was on the federal advisory board who raised concerns about the H5N1 research, questioned the value of the research, “Should we do the work if it’s not actually going to make a difference?”

To date, WHO has been informed of a total of 134 laboratory-confirmed human cases with avian influenza A (H7N9) virus including 43 deaths.


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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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