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A New Flu Virus Heads to the Bench

Researchers plan to tinker with the A(H7N9) influenza virus genome to assess its pandemic threat, as Ron Fouchier from Erasmus Medical Center in The Netherlands, Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and some 20 colleagues write in a letter to both Nature and Science.

Fouchier, Kawaoka, and their colleagues outline their reasoning for such gain-of-function experiments and try to assuage possible concerns about the risk of accidental or intentional release from the lab, all to avoid an uproar like the one that followed their 2011 publications.

At the end of 2011, the researchers were setting about to publish their respective studies showing that they each had engineered the H5N1 flu strain so that it could be transmitted between ferrets through the air. The publication of such details raised some eyebrows at the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which asked the researchers to redact certain information from their papers so that people with bad intentions would not have access to how to make such transmittable viruses. A moratorium on some H5N1 flu work was also imposed for about a year.

“With H5N1, we were criticized for not being transparent,” Fouchier tells Science. “So this time we want to be sure the public understands what we want to do before we do it, why we need to do it, and how we are going to do it safely.”

Fouchier, Kawaoka, and their colleagues now say that plan to begin experiments on H7N9 — the cause of a recent outbreak in China — to study its immunogenicity, ability to adapt to mammal hosts, drug resistance, transmission, and pathogenicity. They note that all such experiments will be subject to review by institutional biosafety committees and risk-mitigation plans will be required. In addition, they pledge to carry out this work in biosafety level 3-enhanced conditions, among other steps.

In a separate letter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Harold Jaffe, Amy Patterson from the National Institutes of Health, and Nicole Lurie from the Department of Health and Human Services note that studies that may lead to flu viruses that are transmissible between mammals will also undergo an additional layer of review at HHS that assesses their "potential scientific and public-health benefits as well as biosafety and biosecurity risks."

An editorial in Nature cautions researchers against overselling the benefits of such studies of flu. "Scientists cannot predict pandemics, so to assess the pandemic potential of viruses — and to decide which strains warrant the manufacture of trial vaccines — comes down to judgments of relative risk," the editors note.