Scientists in Wisconsin have created a mutant version of the so-called Spanish flu virus that killed an estimated 50 million people in 1918.
Researchers involved with the project say the experiments that led to the creation are important to understanding currently circulating avian viruses that could pose serious public health risks.
Critics like Lord May, who was once a chief science adviser to the U.K. government, argue the experiments are “crazy” and that the groups funding the project should put a stop to the work.
"The work they are doing is absolutely crazy. The whole thing is exceedingly dangerous," May told The Guardian. "Yes, there is a danger, but it's not arising form the viruses out there in the animals, it's arising from the labs of grossly ambitious people.”
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Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is heading up the controversial experiments and he contends that the research is both safe and necessary. He believes the work can help scientists understand how viruses that infect wild bird populations can mutate and end up attacking humans.
News of Kawaoka’s research comes as another dangerous flu virus, H1N1, has recently shown up again in humans. That virus caused the so-called swine flu pandemic of 2009. Other known viruses also worry experts. One called H5N1 has killed 392 people since 2003 and another known as H7N9 killed 122 people in China last year.
"Because avian influenza viruses in nature require only a few changes to adapt to humans and cause a pandemic, it is important to understand the mechanisms involved in adaptation and identify the key mutations so we can be better prepared," Kawaoka said in a statement quoted by NBC News.
Robert Kolter, professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School, told The Independent that Kawaoka and his team are driven by ambition and not truly acting in the human population’s best interest.
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“The scientists doing this work are so immersed in their own self-aggrandizement, they have become completely blind to the irresponsibility of their acts,” Kolter said. “Their arguments in favor of such work … remain as weak as ever.”
Kawaoka said his experiments are completely safe.
“These critics fail to appreciate the precautions and safeguards built into our work,” he said. “The risks of conducting this research are not ignored, but they can be effectively managed and mitigated.”
Simon Wain-Hobson, of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, agreed that risks can be minimized but he questioned the value of the research given that the risks cannot be totally eliminated.
“The work doesn’t offer us much. The risk of escape is small but non-zero. I do not see such benefits, so on balance we are worse off,” he said.