Two letters published in the journals Nature and Science argue for the commencement of research on the H7N9 influenza that may yield more potent strains of the new flu virus that emerged in China earlier this year.
To fully assess the potential risk associated with these novel viruses, there is a need for additional research including experiments that may be classified as "gain-of-function," wrote virologist Ron Fuchier of Erasmus Medical Center (Netherlands) and 21 other world-renowned scientists.
H7N9 avian influenza jumped from poultry to humans this past spring, causing an international scare, although the virus only infected 134 people in east Asia. The virus' spread was limited by its inability to easily pass between people. Indeed, the only suspected example of person-to-person transmission occurred between two Asian family members in March, although the details of the case weren't released until this week. Both individuals were killed by the virus.
Scientists are worried, with enough time, that H7N9 could evolve into a more vicious spreader. Given the virus's mortality rate hovers at about 30 percent, such a development could trigger a severe epidemic.
Drug resistance against current antivirals has also reared its ugly head in the H7N9 storyline, which has the National Institutes of Health, scientists in China, and multiple drug firms working day and night to find better treatments.
Drug resistance is one area that the authors of these letters want to examine, along with investigations into building vaccines, adaptation, transmission, and disease severity — all of which may produce more dangerous variants of H7N9.
The correspondence, according to the authors, is intended to preempt the backlash that is expected from the regular citizens and fellow scientists that think this line of research is an unnecessary risk.
Are the right safety protocols in place?
What if experimental H7N9 virus particles capable of causing a serious epideimic are accidentally released from one these labs?
Fouchier is no stranger to such rebuffs. He headed one of two labs that surprised the world in 2011 when they announced the creation of an H5N1 avian influenza strain that could easily pass between mammals (ferrets). This set off a series of global protests in the media and academic circles that halted similar projects on H5N1 for over a year.
Yet this ban, which was self-imposed by global virologists, was lifted after government agencies and international health organizations spent thousands of hours dicussing the dangers.
These letters will arguably serve as an initiating platform for debate, and indeed, scientists are already sounding off, with some calling the authors justification "very flimsy, to put it mildly."
In response to the letters, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has issued guidelines on how it will proceed with the approval of H7N9 gain-of-function research to ensure the appropriate biosafety practices are maintained.
Sources: Fouchier RAM, Kawaoka Y, Cardona C, et al. Gain-of-Function Experiments on H7N9. Science. 2013.
Jaffe H, Patterson AP, Lurie N. Extra Oversight for H7N9 Experiments. Science. 2013.