Dutch Virologists to Create Deadly New Flu Strain

Researchers recently announced that they plan to create a new version of a deadly flu virus. They intend to create a strain of the emerging bird flu which might be more infectious to humans. Such an endeavor may herald some important scientific benefits, but the potential harm is certainly worth considering, as are the ethical implications.

What is the Virus in Question?

The virus they wish to work with is the H7N9 bird flu virus. It is believed to travel from poultry to people based upon the 130 cases reported up to this point. Only two cases have demonstrated the virus’s ability to travel from person to person. 43 people have died at this point, but experts fear a resurgence of the virus in the fall. Signs point to the possibility of the reemerging strain becoming resistant to anti-virus drugs.

Who Is Performing the Experiment?

Ron Fouchier, a Dutch virologist working at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, is leading the quest to create the strain in a lab. He worked on the 2011 experiments that made the H5N1 virus transmittable between ferrets, another controversial virology experiment. This experiment caused a great deal of outcry similar to that against the H7N9 trials. Fouchier stands firm in his belief that the research should be done, however.

What are the Benefits?

Fouchier and his team tout many benefits of the research they are proposing. 22 international researchers evaluating the necessity of the experiment state that it “is necessary and should be done.”(1) The team promises to follow enhanced safety requirements and says that the benefits outweigh any potential harm. The research can potentially help scientists to understand how the flu works and the potential deadliness of H7N9. It may demonstrate the virus’s ability to mutate and provide a virus, which can be used to create medications. Having this knowledge can allow governments to act in advance of a potential pandemic, preventing future deaths.

What are the Downsides?

The biggest argument against carrying out the research (and other similar experiments) is that the virus is too dangerous and could itself cause a pandemic. There is also the possibility of the virus reaching the hands of terrorists. In such a situation it could then be used as a weapon of bioterrorism, with hugely fatal consequences. In previous research, Rouchier’s work did not produce the desired results. While the researchers claim that this work is vital, none of the work on H5N1 made governments or scientists more capable of preventing a pandemic. Michael Osterholm, a flu expert, said in an Associated Press report that “H5N1 surveillance is as haphazard today as it was two years ago. Should we do the work if it’s not actually going to make a difference?” (2) This previous failure is being viewed by some potentially indicative of similar results in future H7N9 experiments.

Ethical Arguments

With this type of virology research’s potential for disaster, its ethical and practical implications must not be taken lightly. Arguments in favor of this and similar research tend to focus on its possible benefits. It does have the potential to prevent a pandemic if the correct results are uncovered. The big question is, if such research is done, who should have access to it? Some would argue that censorship has no place in scientific research, but when it comes to deadly viruses with the potential for use by criminals, such opinions must be reconsidered. The prevailing arguments are roundly in favor of limiting the publication of lethal formulas and tracking the shipment of samples. Background checks should be instituted for those studying at the laboratories and ethical responsibility must continue to be a high priority of scientific education.

1 – http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/sciencefair/2013/08/07/bird-flu-h7n9/2628797/

2 – http://www.newsdaily.com/article/d74f91bc29d6212bdf5a20d1d55e5d5f/scientistsplan-controversial-lab-made-bird-flu

Published data: http://www.uq.edu.au/vdu/VDUInfluenza_H7N9.htm

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