Creating viruses seems like a favorite past-time of super villains out for world domination. Turns out, it’s also the not-so-nefarious plan of scientists specializing in flu research. One group wants to destroy the world, one wants to save it. If you haven’t heard of the bird flu, you either aren’t planning any travels to Asia, or don’t plan on communing with many feathered creatures. But the thing about the bird-flu—the most common and well-known strain is H5N1—is that it can jump species and spread to other animals, including humans.
Last week, Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, along with Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published plans to start a slew of risky experiments with the H7N9 virus, a new breed of bird flu. The first report of the H7N9 strain infecting a human occurred in mid-February in China, but the number of cases soon jumped—at least 134 humans have been infected, and 43 of them died from the virus. The number of cases rose particularly quickly, triggering renewed fears of a worldwide pandemic. Live bird markets appeared to be the cause of much of the human infection, and scientists worried about potential human-to-human transmission.
Next to slaughtering tens of thousands of birds, the best idea is to increase the virulence of the virus. Fouchier and Kawaoka plan to genetically engineer the virus and then play with its genes to make it drug resistant, better at transmitting from person to person, and thus less likely to get tangled up in the immune system. In other words, they’re making a superflu. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
While admitting the potential dangers of the experiment, Fouchier insists that this is the best course of action, largely due to virus’ ability to mutate. He says, “The H7N9 virus is not yet transmitted efficiently [through the air]. But the question is, can it gain the capacity and therefore pose a serious pandemic threat?” Some flu researchers disagree, believing the risks of such an experiment to be greater than any potential rewards.
This isn’t the first time these scientists have tinkered with the bird flu to make it more dangerous, nor is it the first time they’ve come under scrutiny for doing so. Back in 2011, during a particularly virulent outbreak, the National Institutes of Health conducted studies on the bird flu, focusing on how it might adapt in the future to become more dangerous to humans. The study involved scientists tweaking the virus, making it easier to spread to other animals. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity later advised the scientists, government, and prospective science journals to not to publish the findings, but to release them only to legitimate public health researchers, as the research had “the potential to be misused for harmful purposes.” Oh, come on, NSABB. We’re just talking about little ol’ bioweapons!