To Defend Against Flu, Make It Deadly

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A technician carries out a test on a suspected infected sample using the H7N9 bird flu virus test.
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Researchers want to create a more contagious and deadly version of the avian influenza virus, H7N9, which causes severe respiratory illness in humans as well as death.

In a letter jointly published today in Nature and Science, influenza expert Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and professor of virology Yoshihiro Kawaoka University of Wisconsin-Madison together with twenty other scientists in the field outlined five general research areas they plan to investigate.

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The scientists say their experiments could shed light on how the virus works, how it develops resistance to drugs and how it might adapt to jump from poultry, where it originates, to humans. That information could lead to a life-saving vaccine that prevents a worldwide pandemic.

But some scientists think that telling the world about the experiments ahead of time is a bad idea. They say the letter will just stoke unwarranted fears about necessary research and potentially create public pressure to roadblock valuable science.

Fouchier and Kawaoka wrote the letter to forestall the kind of controversy that followed similar experiments they did in 2011 on the bird flu virus H5N1. This variety of influenza originated in birds, most likely chickens, but jumped to humans, especially to those handling infected birds. So far only about 600 people have come down with H5N1 because the virus is not capable of efficiently spreading itself to human hosts. But when it does, it's deadly. To date, 60 percent of those infected have died and that's why health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are worried. If H5N1 mutates into a strain that's easily transmissible between humans, millions of people could die.

In their experiments on H5N1, Fouchier and Kawaoka made the harmful virus more contagious, although paradoxically it became less deadly. Nonetheless, fears about the possible use of the research data to make biological weapons prompted a self-imposed, yearlong moratorium on certain kinds of flu research that lasted until January 2013.

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Now Fouchier, Kawaoka, and other researchers want to do a similar thing with H7N9, another potentially dangerous avian influenza virus, and they want the world to know what they're doing and why.

"We wanted to be transparent," Kawaoka told DNews. "We learned from H5N1 experience that there were many misunderstandings about our research. By publishing this statement, we hope to help the public understand what we are doing and why; we also explain the precautions we take and the oversight we operate under to conduct our research."

What they want to do is genetically modify the H7N9 virus in a variety of ways to uncover the functions of its genes -- research that involves so-called "gain of function" experiments. In the letter to Nature and Science, the researchers outlined five different areas they'd like to study: the virus's potential to adapt to different hosts, its drug resistance, its ability to mutate, its potential to become pathogenic and how to develop effective vaccines.

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