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."

News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
i100
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
News
Lane Del Rey performing on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
people... but none of them helped me get a record deal, insists Lana Del Rey
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
British author Howard Jacobson has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize
books
News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Portfolio Analyst/ PMO

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Systems Analyst (Technical, UML, UI)

£30000 - £40000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Cost Reporting-MI Packs-Edinburgh-Bank-£350/day

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Cost Reporting Manager - MI Packs -...

Senior Private Client Solicitor - Gloucestershire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - We are makin...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn