Scientists to make mutant forms of H7N9 virus
SCIENTISTS are to create mutant forms of the H7N9 bird-flu virus that has emerged in China, so they can gauge the risk of it becoming a lethal human pandemic.
The genetic modification work means that highly transmissible and deadly forms of H7N9 will be made at several high-security laboratories around the world, but it is vital to prepare for the threat, the scientists said.
The new bird-flu virus, which was unknown in humans until February, has already infected at least 133 people in China and Taiwan, killing 43 of them, according to the latest World Health Organization data.
Announcing plans to start the controversial experiments, leading virologists Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka said that H7N9's pandemic risk would rise "exponentially" if it gained the ability to spread easily among people.
And the only way to find out how likely that is, and how many genetic changes would need to take place before it could happen, is to engineer those mutations in laboratory conditions and test the virus' potential using animal models, they said.
"It's clear this H7N9 virus has some hallmarks of pandemic viruses, and it's also clear it is still missing at least one or two of the hallmarks we've seen in the pandemic viruses of the last century," Professor Fouchier said.
"So the most logical step forward is to put in those (missing) mutations first."
By finding the mutations needed, researchers and the health authorities can better assess how likely it is that a new virus could become dangerous and, if so, how soon they should begin developing drugs, vaccines and other scientific defences.
Such work is highly controversial. It has fuelled an international row in the past two years, after it was carried out on another bird-flu virus, H5N1. The United States National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity feared that details of the work could fall into the wrong hands and be used for bioterrorism.