Fri, Aug 09, 2013 - Page 6 News List

Scientists to make mutant forms of flu to assess risk

Reuters, LONDON

Scientists are to create mutant forms of the H7N9 avian influenza virus that has emerged in China so they can gauge the risk of it becoming a lethal human pandemic.

The genetic modification work will result in highly transmissible and deadly forms of H7N9 being made in several high security laboratories around the world, but it is vital to prepare for the threat, the scientists said.

The new bird flu virus, which was unknown in humans until February, has already infected at least 132 people in China and one in Taiwan, killing 43 of them, according to the latest WHO data.

Announcing plans to start the controversial experiments, leading virologists Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka said H7N9’s pandemic risk would rise “exponentially” if it gained the ability to spread easily among people and the only way to find out how likely that is, and how many genetic changes would need to take place before it could happen, is to engineer those mutations in laboratory conditions and test the virus’ potential using animal models, they said.

“It’s clear this H7N9 virus has some hallmarks of pandemic viruses and it’s also clear it is still missing at least one or two of the hallmarks we’ve seen in the pandemic viruses of the last century,” Fouchier said in a telephone interview. “So the most logical step forward is to put in those [missing] mutations first.”

Writing in the journals Nature and Science on behalf of 22 scientists who will carry out various aspects of the H7N9 work, Fouchier said because the risk of a pandemic caused by a bird flu virus exists in nature, it was critical for risk-mitigation plans to study the likely mutations that could make that happen.

This kind of science is known as “gain of function” (GOF) research. It aims to identify combinations of genetic mutations that allow an animal virus to jump to humans and spread easily.

By finding the mutations needed, researchers and health authorities can better assess how likely it is that a new virus could become dangerous and if so, how soon they should begin developing drugs, vaccines and other scientific defenses.

Yet such work is highly controversial. It has fuelled an international row in the past two years after it was carried out on another threatening bird flu virus, H5N1.

When Fouchier, of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Kawaoka, at the University of Wisconsin in the US, announced in late 2011 they had found how to make H5N1 into a form that could spread between mammals, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) was so alarmed that it took the unprecedented step of trying to censor publication of the studies.

The NSABB said it feared details of the work could fall into the wrong hands and be used for bioterrorism. A year-long moratorium on such research followed while the WHO, US security advisers and international flu researchers sought ways to ensure the highest safety controls.

The laboratory Fouchier will be working in is known as a Bio-Safety Level 3 Enhanced lab, the highest level of biosecurity that can be achieved in academic research.

“Nature is the biggest threat to us, not what we do in the lab. What we do in the lab is under very intense biosecurity measures,” Fouchier said. “There are layers upon layers of layers of biosafety measures such that if one layer might break there are additional layers to prevent this virus ever coming out.”

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