Field of Science

Scientists are creating a dangerous flu strain, just to prove they can

In an outrageous display of chutzpah, a group of flu researchers led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands announced today, in a letter to the journal Nature, that they were planning to engineer the new H7N9 avian flu strain to give it new, possibly much more deadly capabilities.  Fouchier is the same scientist who, two years ago, adapted the highly pathogenic H5N1 flu strain so that it could be passed from human to human, which it cannot do in its natural form.  The resulting outcry delayed publication of his paper, but it eventually did appear.

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.


  1. Just a minor correction: Fouchier's lab is in Rotterdam not Amsterdam

  2. A good description of their work is "Vanity Science". Grabs headlines for the wrong reasons, fails singularly to enlightens us. Rather similar to #culturedbeef at the start of August, but also rather more disturbing. The definition of an accident is that it will happen at some point, "safety" procedures simply reduce probability.

  3. looks more like an advertisement than like a scientific review,
    there are no references.
    If it's "urgent" then close the live poultry markets, that works.
    I don't think that NSABB,NIH should handle this bioengineering,
    even if you are on the panel.
    We need a better, international organization.


  4. this blog entry is also quoted and discussed here:

    1. ... trying to make it clickable ...

    2. I reply here, since my reply at Joe's blog doesn't show and my 2 favourite browsers
      don't show the other 2 comments - it worked with firefox.

      We should form an alternative panel in internet with discussion and voting.
      Anti-H7N9 groupthink is less likely, since they do not benefit directly,personally,financially.
      We should do these experiments in humans, in rare cases.
      The 5 amino-acids were got by passaging, I assume it's repeatable.They don't mention
      that passaging in the letter, but I think that's one of the critical experiments now.
      If they don't do it, others will. Earlier or later.
      This decision should not be case-specific but rather be seen as a guidance for future
      gof-research. How/who should regulate and surveille it ? What if someone "succeeds" ?
      It's time to think about that.
      The computer-people should examine the search-space and methods and possible algorithms
      and possible improvements and historical pandemics and help to estimate the likelyhood of success.
      The flu people can't/don't estimate this so well.


    3. GSGS,
      Sorry for the trouble with posting at my site. I honestly don't know what happened; it didn't even tell me that you attempted to post.

      I'm not sure anti-H7N9 groupthink is less likely. Benefiting financially or personally would seem to be a reason to conform to a thought process, but those aren't the only reasons. In thinking a lot more about this issue, there are obviously two very different sides both of which probably overestimate their arguments and underestimate the others. I'm still of the firm opinion that these experiments are well worth doing, if nothing else to learn more about the biology of these viruses and potential immune responses generated. Perhaps the better proposal is doing the gain of function experiments and also collaborating with the bioinformatics researchers to frame everything in the proper context.

      - Joe

    4. copy this to your site ?
      How comes, that all the researchers who were doing such experiments
      or are able and equipped to do them, are for it and from 200 nonflu-virologists
      a reported >50% are against it ?
      How likely is that, if you assume that both groups were equally likely to
      vote in either side ...


    5. GSGS,
      I think it would be an interesting thing to have an actual survey sent out asking for opinions: a simple yes no kind of a thing. Was that what Hale and the foundation did? If so they should make those data public. If not, it would be an interesting thing to do. Most virologists that I talk to on a daily basis (flu and non-flu) are pro-experimentation.

      One thing that is important to stress (and I know I don't need to do so to you) is that even though transmissibility in ferrets was enhanced, virulence was decreased. And, despite what some may say, we don't know how these mutations will change transmission in people. It is a little disingenuous for the foundation to claim that these studies will generate viruses that could circulate from person to person and be worse than the 1918 flu. It should also be noted that there could be many other mutations that have to happen to make this virus highly virulent outside the lab. Containment is an issue, but these labs have proven that they are able to safely work on these viruses without endangering the public.

      - Joe

    6. the virulence finetuning might be changed later.
      First let's show that we can create pandemics

  5. have you seen this little piece
    the influenza virus is "breaking the dual use rules"
    (their slogan is: nature is the biggest bioterrorist)
    By Taubenberger,Morens. Often they have Fauci
    in their team, but he wisely stayed away from this one ;-)

  6. Is it any stupider than trying to put humans on Mars?


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