An elite group of influenza scientists wants to do controversial gain-of-function research on the new H7N9 bird-flu virus that emerged this spring in China.
The group has outlined the types of studies it believes should be conducted in a letter published simultaneously today by two top journals, Nature and Science.
The proposal may reignite a heated debate that raged about a year ago over similar research done on the H5N1 bird-flu virus.
But Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier, who is one of the authors, says the idea behind the letter is for researchers to be transparent about what they plan to do in the hopes that fends off some of the concerns that emerged in the H5N1 controversy.
Gain-of-function research involves adding mutations of a virus to see if it can gain features it doesn't currently have, such as the ability to resist flu drugs or spread easily from person to person.
The goal is to identify changes that would give a virus these capacities so that public health laboratories could be on the lookout for viruses with these changes that emerge in nature.
A number of scientists – mostly from outside the influenza research community – have argued this work is too dangerous and should not be undertaken.
Others argued, at the time of the H5N1 gain-of-function controversy, that the exact mutations used to push the viruses to become more transmissible among mammals should not be published because they could serve as a blueprint for making bird-flu viruses that can spread, like seasonal flu viruses, from person to person.
To date, there have been 134 confirmed human cases of H7N9 influenza, and one-third – 43 – of those people have died. The World Health Organization says that as of early July there had been 633 known cases of H5N1 flu and 377 of the cases have died from the infection.
The letter was signed by a group of influenza scientists who do research funded by the U.S. government. Most are based in the United States, but a few, like Fouchier, do their work overseas with American funding.
A second letter published by the journals was from officials of the U.S. government announcing that the Department of Health and Human Services has instituted a new review process for some gain-of-function experiments with H7N9 viruses. A similar system is in place for this type of work on H5N1 viruses.
The letter makes clear that scientists who want to do this type of research with U.S. funding will need to have their plans reviewed by a panel of experts with backgrounds in public health, medicine, security, science policy, global health, ethics, U.S. law and risk assessment.