In a controversial move, scientists have announced intentions to develop mutant forms of the H7N9 bird flu virus, which was unknown before February and has since infected 133 people in China and Taiwan and killed 43.
Scientists say that the experiments are necessary to assess the risk of the virus becoming a global human pandemic. The altered virus, which will be created in a number of high-security laboratories around the world, will be significantly more transmissible than its current form, allowing researchers to prepare for the mutations should they occur in the future.
Though the virus appears to be under control at the moment, leading virologists Ron Fouchier and Yoshohiro Kawaoka said at the announcement of the research project that the risk of a pandemic would rise “exponentially” if H7N9 were to mutate to spread more easily among humans.
“It’s clear this H7N9 virus has some hallmarks of pandemic viruses, and it’s also clear it is still missing at least one or two of the hallmarks we’ve seen the pandemic viruses of the last century,” said Fouchier in an interview with Reuters. “So the most logical step forward is to put in those (missing) mutations first.”
The plans have sparked concern in the international community about the safety of the experiments. A previous research project that similarly studied mutant developments of H5N1 bird flu in 2011 resulted in controversy and a research moratorium as officials feared that details of the project, if leaked, could be used in bioterrorist attacks. However, Fouchier dismissed any concerns regarding the forthcoming research.
“Nature is the biggest threat to us, not what we do in the lab,” said Fouchier. “What we do in the lab is under intense biosecurity measures. There are layers upon layers of layers of biosafety measures such that if one layer might break there are additional layers to prevent this virus ever coming out.”
The spread of H7N9 slowed significantly after the initial outbreak, with only 3 new human cases in May, as compared to 30 in March and 87 in April. Experts suggest that this is likely attributed to both the closure of live poultry farms and warming weather. However, many are concerned that the virus will reemerge as winter approaches and temperatures once again drop in China.