Since flu season is upon us, I thought it was timely to discuss a controversy that has recently arisen about proposed experiments on a particularly nasty strain of the flu virus.
A group of distinguished virologists published a letter in the August 2013 issue of the journal Science. The letter called for a research initiative directed towards the avian H7N9 influenza strain (1). Publication of such a letter is a common way to rally support for something that researchers feel is particularly timely or urgent. In this case, the urgency arises because flu virus strains prevalent in the annual worldwide infection cycle continually change. This is why one must get a flu shot every year, unlike other vaccinations (e.g., tetanus), which are effective for many years. While H7N9 originated in birds, it has mutated to infect humans as well. H7N9 has not been a major player worldwide as yet, but it has nevertheless been very deadly in a small number of cases in China. There, it has killed more than a third of the people infected. In the letter, the researchers assert that vaccine development, as well as the discovery of clues to how H7N9 could acquire resistance to commonly used antiviral drugs, would be helped by the proposed research.
Some of the suggested experiments are controversial; specifically, those known as gain of function (GOF) experiments. To do GOF experiments, genetic material from another organism would be introduced into H7N9 to confer a property that it does not currently possess. For example, one might wish to make H7N9 infectious to a species that it does not presently infect, because it is easier or more ethical to carry out future experiments with that species. One cannot ethically test a dangerous virus on humans, so it would be beneficial if experiments could be done in mice, for example. One might also wish to increase the infectiousness of the virus, to decrease the time each experiment takes to do. This approach can be inherently dangerous, since H7N9 infects humans – a manmade viral pandemic is a possibility if the altered virus should escape from the laboratory. Additionally, it is hard to know whether a dangerous unknown property is being introduced along with desired trait.
Other researchers have argued that conducting GOF experiments on the H7N9 virus is at best premature and at worst, unnecessary and dangerous (2, 3). A similar controversy, which arose in 2011 around analogous experiments on a different avian influenza strain, resulted in a moratorium on such work (4). The H7N9 researchers hoped to avoid such a delay by increasing the transparency of the proposed work by publication of the letter. However, the publicity has already resulted in heightened scrutiny GOF experiments in H7N9 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), before permission is granted to use HHS funding to conduct GOF experiments (5).
Most people agree that freedom of scientific inquiry is essential if science and technology are to advance to the benefit of mankind, but scientists have no inherent right to conduct experiments dangerous to humanity (6). However, it is seldom clear-cut whether a proposed avenue of research should be restricted because of potential risks – there could be a significant risk associated with doing nothing, as well. The situation becomes more complicated when dealing with time-sensitive issues like the spread of the influenza virus – a lengthy risk-benefit analysis is not always desirable nor possible. Nevertheless, such transparent consideration of these issues is a sign of a healthy scientific process that should inspire public confidence.
1. Science. 2013 Aug 9;341(6146):612. doi: 10.1126/science.341.6146.612.
2. Science. 2013 Oct 18;342(6156):311. doi: 10.1126/science.342.6156.311-a.
3. Science. 2013 Oct 18;342(6156):310. doi: 10.1126/science.342.6156.310-b.
4. Science. 2013 Aug 9; Malakoff, 341(6146):601 doi. 10.1126/science.341.6146.601
5. Science. 2013 Aug 16; 341(6147):713 doi. 10.1126/science.1244158