Now they want to do the same thing, and much more, with the new H7N9 influenza virus, which has killed 43 people in China to date, and which epidemiologists are tracking with great concern.
They should track Fouchier and his lab instead.
Wait a second, protests Fouchier. He promises that
"All experiments proposed by influenza investigators are subject to review by institutional biosafety committees. The committees include experts in the fields of infectious disease, immunology, biosafety, molecular biology and public health; also, members of the public represent views from outside the research community."Sorry, but I'm not reassured. Fouchier's group wants to do this research because it's all they know how to do - and, I suspect, because they enjoy the publicity. Despite their claims that the research is vital to our understanding of the flu, none of their past work, including their work on H5N1, has changed our ability to respond to a pandemic. As flu expert Michael Osterholm said in a report by the Associated Press:
"H5N1 surveillance is as haphazard today as it was two years ago. Should we do the work if it's not actually going to make a difference?"Precisely. Fouchier and his colleagues can't do surveillance, nor do they work on vaccine development. They have laboratories where they can engineer the flu virus to make new strains, so that's what they want to do. Two years after their controversial H5N1 experiments, they haven't contributed to any improvement in our ability to control a pandemic, nor have they shown how to develop a better flu vaccine. The benefits of creating a deadly new H7N9 virus are marginal, at best.
What about the risk? As reported in the Daily Mail, Fouchier and his colleague Yoshihiro Kawaoka themselves said
"H7N9's pandemic risk would rise 'exponentially' if it gained the ability to spread more easily among people."Really? And from this they conclude that it's a good idea to engineer a virus that can do exactly that - spread more easily among people? Are we supposed to take this risk because of some theoretical benefit from a vague "better understanding" of how mutations in the virus change its pathogenicity?
Although Fouchier is in Rotterdam, the NIH funds part of his work through the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of NIAID, offered the reassurance that a special panel will review this H7N9 project, and
"If the risk is felt to be too high by this outside review, they will recommend it won't be done and we won't fund it."Despite this additional oversight, I remain skeptical. These special panels tend to include other scientists who are very sympathetic with the work they're reviewing, as was demonstrated two years ago when the H5N1 work was published despite the grave concerns expressed by many outside the field. I predict they will approve Fouchier and Kawaoka's experiments.
Here's a thought: put me on the panel: I've published multiple research papers on the influenza virus (including this paper in Nature and this paper on H5N1 avian flu), so I think it's fair to say I'm qualified. But somehow I doubt they will do that.