Scientists have sparked significant controversy by announcing plans for a lab created bird flu. The versions would be easier to spread, and while researchers have said that it would be exclusively for the purpose of research, many have said that this is a dangerous step and should not be allowed to happen. This time, however, the US government has promised to pay extra attention to such frightening research from the beginning.
Since the first signs of it in March in China, the H7N9 strain of the bird flu has infected over 120 people; 43 of them were fatal cases. Some of the top researchers of the bird flu have argued that by genetically changing the virus in extremely high security laboratories is the key to determining the ways that it can mutate when left alone. When this happens, the bird flu has the potential to become the next global pandemic.
According to Ron Fouchier, with Erasmus University in the Netherlands, people cannot prevent pandemics or epidemics, but it is possible to gain essential knowledge before it happens, and that can help countries to be better prepared and respond should it happen.
Wednesday, the journals Science and Nature, published letters between Fouchier and colleagues from 12 research centers in Britain, the US and Hong Kong. The letters outlined plans for the upcoming “gain-of-function” research to create strains of the flu that could be even stronger than the wild ones currently in existence. Some of these strains of lab created bird flu may be easily spread through the air between animals in the lab. The researchers say that this work has the potential to reveal the most significant mutations and allow health officials to watch them as a way to determine how vaccines should be manufactured.
The researchers made the announcement in an effort to prevent the international controversy that started in 2011. At that time, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, with the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and Fouchier created strains of another type of bird flu that was easier to spread. Concerns at that time included guarding the laboratory against accidents that might allow the virus to spread, as well as publishing the findings could help potential bioterrorists to create their own versions of the virus.
The researchers have said that the goal is to help the public understand before they start the reasons for doing more of this type of research, as well as how the risks will be managed.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has taken measures to tighten oversight of research that involves dangerous germs. On Wednesday, the US Dept. of Health and Human Services said that there would be an additional step: Studies would not just be scientifically reviewed, but the researchers that are proposing the creation of strains of H7N9 that are easier to spread will have to go through review by a panel of experts that will risk the potential benefits and risks of such research.
However, critics are not satisfied by these additional measures and would like to see such risky research halted before it even begins.