Controversy surrounds man-made bird flu plans
A plan by multi-national scientists to conduct research about how mutating H7N9 avian flu could be spread person to person is poised for controversy, following the backlash of a similar research for H5N1 in 2011.
The US government has already voiced its intent to highly scrutinize plans to create easier-to-spread versions of the bird flu for research purposes by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, who now plans to study the H7N9 flu strain.
H7N9 has infected more than 130 people and killed 43 since it broke out in China in March. Some of the world's leading flu researchers argue that genetically altering that virus in high-security labs is key to studying how it might mutate in the wild to become a bigger threat to people, maybe even the next pandemic.
"We cannot prevent epidemics or pandemics, but we can accumulate critical knowledge ahead of time" to help countries better prepare and respond, Fouchier told The Associated Press.
In letters published in the journal Science and Nature, Fouchier and colleagues from a dozen research centers in the US, Hong Kong and Britain outlined plans for what's called gain-of-function research — creating potentially stronger strains, including ones that might spread easily through the air between lab animals. They say the work could highlight the most important mutations for public health officials to watch for as they monitor the virus' natural spread or determine how to manufacture vaccines.
The Obama administration already had tightened oversight of research involving dangerous germs. 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.
Scientists have anxiously monitored bird flu for years, but so far the deadliest strains of concern only cause sickness, mostly after close contact with infected poultry. The H5N1 strain has sickened more than 600 people and caused 377 deaths, mostly in Asia, since the late 1990s.
Infections by the newly emerged H7N9 virus, appear to have stalled since Chinese authorities cracked down on live animal markets. But scientists fear the virus will re-emerge in the winter, when influenza is most active.
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