Leading scientists urge President Obama's advisers to investigate ethical issues raised by creating highly infectious strain of bird-flu

Virus could easily be transmitted between people

A group of leading scientists has urged President Obama’s advisers to investigate the ethical issues raised by a decision to create a highly infectious strain of bird-flu virus that could be transmitted easily between people.

The scientists, who include a former UK Government chief scientist and a Nobel laureate, said that it is “morally and ethically wrong” to create a new type of influenza virus in the laboratory that is more lethal and transmissible than what actually exists in nature.

Two teams of flu researchers – led by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison – announced in 2011 that they had succeeded in mutating the H5N1 avian virus so that it could in theory be transmitted through the air between people.

They stopped the research last year as part of a wider voluntary moratorium following public outrage over the work. But they announced an end to the moratorium earlier this year, and even an expansion into new areas involving other viruses and diseases.

In a strongly-worded letter sent to the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, opponents of the research warned that there has not been enough debate over the threats posed by lifting the moratorium on increasing the transmissibility of highly lethal viruses such as the H5N1 strain of bird-flu.

They said that the 60 per cent mortality rate of the H5N1 virus – on the relatively rare occasions that it has infected humans – puts it in a “class of its own” and that attempting to make it more transmissible through laboratory experiments is tantamount to risking a devastatingly deadly flu pandemic.

“The accidental release of an artificial, laboratory-generated, human-transmissible H5N1 virus into the community has the potential to cause a global pandemic of epic proportions that would dwarf the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed over 50 million people,” the scientists said.

“A majority [of life scientists] considers the creation in the laboratory of a pathogen more lethal than exists in nature is morally and ethically wrong. Indeed, a majority are of the opinion that there is no scientific justification that outweighs the moral and ethical problems,” they said.

The letter, sent at the end of last week, was organised by the Foundation for Vaccine Research, a private organisation based in Washington campaigning for better vaccines. It was sent to the Presidential Commission in order to bypass the powerful US National Institutes of Health, which has funded both research projects into H5N1 transmissibility and has controlled much of the debate over the issue.

Among the 17 signatories of the letter are Professor Lord May, a former chief scientist to the Prime Minister and an expert on disease transmission, Professor Marc Lipsitch, a communicable disease expert at Harvard University, and Sir Richard Roberts, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering work in genetics.

Other signatories include Professor Robin Weiss, a distinguished British virologist working on HIV, Professor Michael Lederman of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and Joshua Plotkin of the University of Pennsylvania.

The scientists are particularly concerned that attempts of create more lethal forms of H5N1 in an attempt to study the threat posed to humans are just the start of further work on other potentially lethal viruses in what they term “gain of function” studies – where more lethal viral mutations are actively encouraged.

“The H5N1 studies represent the first of no doubt many such studies involving other potential pandemic pathogens. Gain-of-function studies with H5N1 virus are being conducted in China, and a team in The Netherlands is expanding their H5N1 studies to include studies with the H7N7 virus, and has announced plans to conduct similar gain-of-function studies with the SARS coronavirus,” the scientists said.

“Just ten days ago we learned that a team in Germany has conducted experiments to see what it would take for canine distemper virus to be transmitted from dogs to humans,” they said.

Professor Simon Wain-Hobson, an eminent virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris who was first to sign the letter, said that the WHO has essentially failed to take the lead by widening the ethical debate over an area of contentious research that has been controlled by vested interests.

“The recent calling off of the moratorium by 40 flu researchers alone – not funders, governments or international bodies – says it all. The flu community simply hasn’t understood that this is a hot-button issue that will not go away,” Professor Wain-Hobson said.

Flu researchers have argued that the laboratory work is necessary in order to study the kind of lethal mutations that could arise in nature, but Professor Wain-Hobson said that the artificial selection of dangerous viruses could result in mutants that would be very unlikely to ever exist in nature. He cites the example of the artificial selection of canine genes by dog breeders over the centuries. “Would nature have come up with the dachshund,” he asks?

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis Stinchcombe, of Broad Plain Boys' Club in Bristol, by a Banksy artwork, titled 'Mobile Lovers', where the sale and handover have been completed at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, where it was on display to the public.
artHuge price will help to keep a 120-year-old youth club in Bristol open
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

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?