Concern over research involving the creation of bird flu that spreads more easily is in the news again. An international group of scientists published an outline Aug. 6 in Science and Nature for similar experiments that could involve even stronger strains of the type of bird flu known as H7N9.
The group, involving scientists from the Netherlands’ Erasmus University plus 12 research centers in Britain, Hong Kong, and the U.S. say the work is important for public health officials as it will identify the main mutations of the virus.
"We cannot prevent epidemics or pandemics, but we can accumulate critical knowledge ahead of time" so health authorities can better plan and react to such situations, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University told The Associated Press.
Two years ago, similar research by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison and Fouchier that involved creating easily-spreading versions of the H5N1 type of bird flu caused an uproar. Critics were concerned about whether or not bioterrorists could use the published research findings for their own ends and about avoiding and dealing with possible lab accidents with the viruses.
|Concern over research involving the creation of bird flu that spreads more easily is in the news again. Photo credit: Andrei Niemimäki, Wikimedia Commons|
Also on Aug. 6, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) stated that it had created an extra restriction to such research, following previous restrictions put in place by the Obama administration. Currently, such research is subject to scientific review and now any experiments that deal with the easily spreading H7N9 must be vetted by a panel of experts who will go over the pros and cons of the research.
"There are strong arguments to do the science," but if it’s not done right, such experiments should not go ahead, said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to the Associated Press.
The NIH will be in charge of putting such experiments before the HHS panel.
However, that new panel will only review research funded by the government, not private research. Some are also questioning whether those restrictions are enough and if the research is even worth it, as at least one expert stated the earlier studies involving H5N1 haven’t made any difference to how the virus is monitored in the wild.
"H5N1 surveillance is as haphazard today as it was two years ago," said University of Minnesota professor Michael Osterholm, part of the federal advisory board that was the first to raise concerns over such research, to the Associated Press. "Should we do the work if it's not actually going to make a difference?"
He added the research hasn’t proven that lethal strains in the lab could help foresee potential pandemics.
On the other hand, based on scientific evidence so far, the deadliest strains have been shown to only sometimes infect people, usually those who work closely with poultry.
H7N9 has killed 43 people and infected over 130 since it broke out in China in March. Though a crackdown on live animal markets has slowed new infections, scientists are worried it will make a comeback during the winter.
- With files from the Associated Press via Yahoo! News