Huge risk or sensible precaution? Scientists in a flap over whether bird flu experiments are safe

Critics have called for a freeze on public spending for 'irresponsible' research

Science Editor

The scientists who carried out controversial experiments to deliberately mutate avian flu into a more transmissible form have declared that they now intend to carry out similar research on another strain of bird-flu that has recently infected more than 100 people in China.

Such experiments are necessary to understand what it takes to turn avian flu into a highly transmissible virus that could cause a global human pandemic, the researchers claim in a joint letter to the journals Nature and Science.

However, other scientists outside the influenza community have criticised the decision on the grounds that the experiments pose a substantial risk of an accidental release of a highly virulent and pandemic strain of flu virus from a laboratory.

Critics of the proposal said that the arguments put forward by the 22 scientists who have signed the letter are not supported by scientific evidence and are based on unfounded claims. They have called for a freeze on public funding for such research.

The two lead authors of the letter are Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison who have both carried out highly controversial experiments with the H5N1 strain of avian flu, which were temporarily stopped last year because of public concerns over safety.

They independently attempted to mutate the H5N1 strain, which is not easily transmitted between people but is highly lethal when it does infect humans, by repeatedly infecting laboratory ferrets, the best "animal model" of human influenza.

Now they want to do similar "gain of function" (GOF) studies on the H7N9 subtype of bird-flu which has infected at least 130 people in China, killing 43. This week doctors in China reported the first human-to-human transmission of H7N9, between a father and a daughter who was caring for him.

"The pandemic risk rises exponentially should these viruses acquire the ability to transmit readily among humans," Fouchier and Kawaoka write in their joint letter to the two scientific journals.

"However, classical epidemiological tracking does not give public-health authorities the time they need to mount an effective response to mitigate the effects of a pandemic virus," they said.

"To provide information that can assist surveillance activities - thus enabling appropriate public-health preparation to be initiated before a pandemic - experiments that may result in GOF [gain of function] are critical," they added.

The proposal has however been heavily criticised by other leading scientists such as Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, and Adel Mahmoud at Princeton University, a world authority on vaccines.

"It seems irresponsible to go forward without at least a serious effort to quantify and weigh that risk against the promised benefit," Professor Lipsitch said.

"That benefit, moreover, is purely speculative; it is not clear how lives could be saved even if we knew the exact genetic mechanisms governing efficient human-to-human transmission, and given the limitations of the ferret model and our ability to look at mutations only a few at a time," he said.

Dr Mahmoud said that the argument put forward by Fouchier and his colleagues that the GOF studies on H7N9 will further vaccine research are based on a "complete lack of understanding" of how flu vaccines are made.

"The same lack of scientific basis and accuracy extends to other unfounded claims about drug resistance and adaptation of different hosts. It is a sad, superficial and expansive set of claims," Dr Mahmoud said.

Professor Mike Imperiale of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, an expert on viruses and the immune system, said: "The authors state that the H5N1 studies have 'contributed to...the development of vaccines and therapeutics, and improved surveillance'. I would like to see the evidence that supports this claim."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'