As the death toll from the H7N9 virus — the mysterious new Chinese bird flu strain that experts have labeled “one of the most lethal” of its kind — rises, a team of Chinese scientists is taking heat for creating 127 new hybrid influenza types in laboratories by combining “the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus with the highly infectious H1N1 human influenza virus.” Researchers from around the globe described the scientists’ actions as “appallingly irresponsible.”
The team of scientists, led by Professor Hualan Chen, published its results in the journal Science on Thursday. Chen argued that her team was simply trying to learn more about the complexities of mutating viral strains and how animal-only flu strains can spread among humans. In an email to the U.K. paper The Independent, Chen said, “The studies demonstrated that H5N1 viruses have the potential to acquire mammalian transmissibility by re-assortment with the human influenza viruses. This tells us that high attention should be paid to monitor the emergence of such mammalian-transmissible virus in nature to prevent a possible pandemic caused by H5N1 virus.”
Other scientists aren’t quite sold on that argument, citing concerns with laboratory safety in Chinese facilities and the limited knowledge gleaned from such experimentation. “The record of containment in labs like this is not reassuring. They are taking it upon themselves to create human-to-human transmission of very dangerous viruses. It’s appallingly irresponsible,” said Robert May of Oxford University. “The virological basis of this work is not strong. It is of no use for vaccine development and the benefit in terms of surveillance for new flu viruses is oversold,” added Pasteur Institute virologist Simon Wain-Hobson.
The construction of new pathogens has always been controversial within the scientific community. In highly-controlled environments, it may be used to outline a virus’ interactions with other agents and create effective vaccines. But many in the scientific community are concerned about the possibility of widespread death and destruction from the synthesized contaminants, either due to insufficient lab safety requirements — or something more sinister. Randall Larsen, former executive director of the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, told The Scientist that many countries have biological weapons programs with the express purpose of creating dangerous new pathogens. In fact, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, a defecting scientist revealed that “the Soviet Union had active programs to weaponize Legionnaire’s disease, Ebola, smallpox, and HIV.”
China’s recent project obviously doesn’t have such a nefarious motivation driving it. But given the risks of creating new, possibly drug-resistant strains of viruses — and the difficulty of effectively containing them — the new study has given many in the scientific community pause.