Dutch scientists hidden away in a high-security laboratory are seeking to create mutant flu viruses, dangerous work designed to prepare the world for a lethal pandemic by beating nature to it.
The idea of engineering viral pathogens to be more deadly than they are has already generated huge controversy, amid fears that such viruses could leak out or fall into the wrong hands.
However, with China braced for scores more cases of a new strain of H7N9 bird flu, Ron Fouchier and Ab Osterhaus say the benefits of this gene mutation research far outweigh the risks.
The experiments, designed to explore H7N9’s potential to develop drug resistance and find which genetic modifications might enhance its ability to spread, could offer the know-how to halt a lethal flu pandemic, they say.
That could be with well-timed new vaccines or other therapies tuned to the pandemic strain’s genes.
“We’re bracing for what’s going to happen next. If H7N9 becomes easily transmissible between humans, yes, the case fatality ratio may go down a little from where it is now, but we’d still be talking about millions of people dying,” says Osterhaus, the head of a highly bio-secure laboratory in the Netherlands that will lead some of the H7N9 mutation work. “This is a critical question — what does this virus really need to become transmissible? It is of extreme importance to being able to understand what’s going on.”
As things stand, 45 of the 136 people known to have contracted H7N9 bird flu in China and Taiwan have died — giving a case fatality rate of about 30 percent.
Fouchier, who has already done so-called “gain of function” experiments with another strain of bird flu, H5N1, says we need to get ahead of the game with H7N9 since its pandemic risk would rise “exponentially” if it gained in nature what he aims to give it in the lab — the ability to spread quickly and easily among people.
However, so far, their drive to find out as much as they can about the genetics of bird flu risks rarely wins these world-renowned virologists thanks. More often, it elicits accusations of putting scientific self-interest over security.
Steven Salzberg, a professor of medicine and biostatistics from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, accused them of “an outrageous display of chutzpah” and says Fouchier “is deeply confused about the possible benefits of this work,” which Salzberg says are marginal at best.
“The notion of ‘gain of function’ research on pathogens is very, very dangerous,” he said.
The H7N9 outbreak, which began in February, when the first cases of this flu strain previously unknown in humans emerged, flared up in April and May and dwindled over the summer months.
However, news last week that a 35-year-old from China’s Zhejiang Province is in a critical condition in hospital with the virus reawakened fears that it could come back hard as temperatures drop and the flu season returns.
So, hidden away in an unsignposted corner of the campus of the Erasmus Medical Centre in the port city of Rotterdam, a handful of top security-cleared researchers are selecting, deleting and adding genes to strains of the H7N9 virus to check what it might be capable of in a worst-case scenario.
The studies aim to genetically modify the virus to see what it needs to give it more of a deadly pandemic kick. That could mean making it more virulent, more pathogenic and, crucially, more transmissible — capable of passing easily in droplets through the air from one mammal to another.