'Untrue statements' anger over work to make H5N1 bird-flu virus MORE dangerous to humans

Coalition of leading scientists claim ferret experiments could lead to a pandemic

Science Editor

Some of the world's most eminent scientists have severely criticised the arguments used by some influenza researchers who are trying to make the H5N1 bird-flu virus more dangerous to humans by repeatedly infecting laboratory ferrets.

More than 50 senior scientists from 14 countries, including three Nobel laureates and several fellows of the Royal Society, have written to the European Commission denouncing claims that the ferret experiments are necessary for the development of new flu vaccines and anti-viral drugs.

They also said it is "untrue" to state that the new mutations in the laboratory strain of H5N1, which have enabled the bird-flu virus to be airborne transmissible between ferrets and, potentially, people, have already been seen in nature.

The letter signed by 56 eminent scientists, many of whom are national science academicians, was designed to correct "misstatements" made by the president of the European Society of Virology, Professor Giorgio Palu, who they claim made "incorrect" assertions about the need to carry out the research in an earlier letter he had sent to the Commission.

The ferret research is being carried out by Ron Fouchier and colleagues at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam. He has been involved in a legal dispute with the Dutch government which has insisted that he needs an export licence before his H5N1 work is published in a scientific journal.

The Dutch government claimed that the work to study the mutations needed to make H5N1 airborne transmissible between ferrets or people has a possible dual civil-military function and could be misused by bioterrorists. Meanwhile, Dr Fouchier has argued that an export licence hampers his academic freedom to publish the results of his experiments in the open scientific literature.

Professor Palu wrote to the president of the European Commission in October to lobby for a change to the EU regulations covering export licences on behalf of Dr Fouchier, arguing that the Dutch scientist has already suffered from bureaucratic delays that have enabled other researchers in the US to publish before him and so claim priority.

Professor Palu said that Dr Fouchier's "gain of function" experiments are designed to see what kind of mutations are necessary to enable the bird-flu virus to be transmissible between mammals in order to make better vaccines and drugs, and that these mutations have already been seen in nature.

"It has to be mentioned that, in this specific case, the 'gain of function' was used to reproduce what nature already selected (as demonstrated by sequencing of field mutants) with the variation that the aim of the study was to predict/anticipate biological evolution and to provide us with critical information to specify preventive and therapeutic measures," Professor Palu wrote.

However, the letter from the 56 scientists, including Lord May of Oxford, a former government chief scientist, states that this assertion is wrong and gives a false impression about the medical need to undertake such dangerous research.

"The sole purpose of the experiments in question was to generate H5N1 viruses that could be transmitted between mammals as readily as seasonable flu via respiratory droplets ie coughing and sneezing," the letter says.

"Despite intensive field surveillance conducted by national health authorities, government agencies, local and regional disease surveillance networks in Southeast Asia and elsewhere over a period of 16 years, there is no evidence that efficiently mammalian transmissible H5N1 viruses have ever emerged naturally in the wild," it says.

"In summary, the statement that 'gain of function' was used to reproduce 'what nature already selected (as demonstrated by sequencing of field mutants)' is simply untrue," it adds.

The signatories of the letter, who include eminent virologists, microbiologists and vaccine experts, as well as Nobel laureates Sir Richard Roberts, Harald zur Hausen and Richard Ernst, warned that there is a serious risk of an accidental release of a pandemic H5N1 virus from laboratories undertaking such research.

"The potential for accidental release of a hazardous pathogen is real, not hypothetical, as demonstrated by an alarming increase in the number of potential and actual release events in laboratories working with high-threat pathogens," they say.

"We are in a situation where the probabilities of a laboratory accident that leads to global spread of an escaped mutated virus are small but finite, while the impact of global spread could be catastrophic," they add.

Professor Palu was unavailable for comment.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury
music
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own