A Call for Urgent Talks on Mutant Flu-Strain Research

English: Avian flu vaccine development by reverse genetics technique. Français: Diagramme en anglais montrant sommairement les étapes menant à la création d’un vaccin contre la grippe aviaire par la génétique inverse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The benefits and risks of “gain-of-function” research into highly pathogenic microbes with pandemic potential must be evaluated, scientists say

A group of over 50 researchers has called on the European Commission to hold a scientific briefing on research that involves engineering microbes to make them more deadly.

In a December 18 letter to European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, the scientists—including representatives from the non-profit Foundation for Vaccine Research in Washington, D.C.—urged the commission to organize the briefing, and to formally evaluate the risks and benefits of such “gain-of-function” research.

“Gain-of-function research into highly pathogenic microbes with pandemic potential has global implications for public health,” says Ian Lipkin, an infectious disease researcher at Columbia University in New York, who is one of the signatories of the letter. “We are not seeking to shut down all gain-of-function research, but asking that stakeholders meet to establish guidelines for doing it.”

The recent controversy over gain-of-function studies began in 2011 when Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, sought to publish a study detailing how his team had engineered H5N1 avian influenza strains that could infect ferrets in separate cages through the air. Avian flu infections can be deadly for humans, but presently circulating strains of the virus are specific to birds and rarely infect mammals.

Proponents of the work say that it provides insight into how avian flu strains could naturally evolve to become more dangerous —results that could inform flu surveillance as well as vaccine and drug development. Opponents say that the work is too risky, because it involves engineering a deadly form of flu that could escape from research facilities or, in the wrong hands, could be intentionally released to cause a pandemic.

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