A Global Alert and Response (GAR) notice was recently rushed out by the World Health Organization (WHO), concerning a deadly super-strain of flu. Laboratory investigations in China had identified a case of human infection with the avian influenza A virus (H7N9), as reported by the National Health and Family Planning Commission. To the relief of many, the dissemination of the lethal disease, which emerged during March, has subsided. However, a gang of research scientists have announced of their intention to genetically modify the deadly strain to enhance its pathogenicity, which would accelerate its transmission within a given population. Not only this, but the 22 scientists, who hail from many diverse parts of the world, claim they wish to improve its resistance to a number of antibiotic medications in a series of comprehensive “gain-of-function” (GOF) experiments. But are they playing Dr. Frankenstein?
Taken directly from the proposal letter, entitled “Gain-of-Function Experiments on H7N9”, the group wish to perform “… risk assessment of the pandemic potential of field strains…”, whilst evaluating the “genetic stability” of mutations which may confer the virus drug resistance. With regard to the virus’ ability to spread amongst population samples, the scientists request approval of transmission studies, aimed at identifying “… gene mutations and gene combinations that confer enhanced transmissibility in mammalian model systems.”
Many have been alarmed by these recent announcements, with good reason. Theoretically, if these laboratory-developed, genetic super-strains of avian influenza were to emerge within the general population, one would imagine devastating consequences. Back in 2012, many of the members of this group had also been partaking in similar “Frankenstein” experiments, investigating the deadly H1N1 viral strain; this also sparked considerable controversy, culminating in a year-long moratorium, which delayed the team’s academic pursuits.
On the other side of the argument, it’s worth considering what could happen if no action were taken at all. The H7N9 subtype of influenza, in China alone, has already claimed the lives of 43 individuals, with over 130 human beings becoming infected. With winter looming, there are fears the virus could re-emerge in more sophisticated form. The unequivocal motives, behind these scientists’ intended proposals, lies in trying to effectively outmaneuver H7N9’s “new moves”. If the virus mutates into a more harmful strain and acquires antibiotic resistance, this would significantly impact upon viable treatment strategies. The end results of this? More people could become infected, and more people could die.
Indeed, we are already aware of cases of H7N9’s resistance. Troubling reports have been circulated, which suggest patients receiving antiviral medications (neuraminidase inhibitors), against the virus, have been unsuccessful.
As admitted by the group, epidemiological studies are usually the first port of call to study and characterize viral strains, in the field, so as to mandate public health initiatives and govern future policy. However, the scientists insist, “… classical epidemiological tracking does not give public health authorities the time they need to mount an effective response to mitigate the effects of a pandemic virus.” They persevere with their case, “… experiments that may result in GOF are critical.”
When describing the risks, the scientists play down the safety concerns, highlighting the existence of “laboratory bioscience guidelines”, which were implemented during similar experiments into H5N1, another influenza strain. The team have also outlined a long list of precautions they plan to adopt.
The bottom line of the situation is this, if we understood more about H7N9’s current mechanisms of infection, and its infective potential, we might be capable of beating deadlier variants of the pathogen, as and when they crop up.
Although these proposals don’t appear to be the Frankenstein-eque experiments that many would immediately judge them to be, there is obviously a number of risk factors to consider when manipulating deadly strains of H7N9. And, when it comes down to brass tacks, one must pose the question, do the potential benefits outweigh the risks?
By: James Fenner