Bird Flu Researchers Push To Make Virus More Contagious

Aug 7, 2013
Originally published on August 7, 2013 4:05 pm

In a letter published today in the nation’s two most prestigious scientific journals — Science and Nature — bird flu researchers say they need to perform research on the H7N9 virus that would make it more dangerous.

The researchers say that’s necessary in order to prepare for its possible spread between humans, perhaps as early as this winter.

The paper comes on the heels of a new study in the British Medical Journal that shows the first probable transmission between humans of the H7N9 virus.


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Well, one way some scientists say they can prevent the spread of this new strain of avian flu is to make it even deadlier so they can study it. Carey Goldberg, health reporter here at WBUR, joins us to talk about that. And, Carey, before we get to what the scientists are trying to do, why does it seem like - whether it's H5N1 or H7N9 - that the avian flu will not go away?

CAREY GOLDBERG, BYLINE: Well, it's because the threat just keeps on looming, Jeremy. I mean, it's not my favorite topic, these sort of potential bird flu pandemics that could sweep humanity and kill millions, but it is a real threat. And researchers say that it has happened before, that there have been strains of flu that crossed from birds and created epidemics in humans. And they're just very concerned that it could happen again on a global scale now that we live a global life.

HOBSON: Well, so tell us about this news today of a debate among scientists about creating more dangerous avian flu viruses for research purposes.

GOLDBERG: Right. It seems counterintuitive. But today, what these scientists are saying - these are some leading avian flu researchers - and they are publishing a public letter in the two most prestigious American science journals, Nature and Science. And they're saying that they think it's really important that they go ahead and work on modifying this new virus, H7N9, that we were just hearing about from Dr. Horby to make it even more dangerous, more resistant to drugs and more easily transmitted. And they call this gain-of-function research.

HOBSON: And haven't we heard this before in 2011 when the other strain of the avian flu, H5N1, was considered a threat?

GOLDBERG: Yes. Good memory. In fact, you have heard these arguments before. There was a very similar back and forth a couple of years ago over the virus H5N1. There was this controversy over whether this sort of gain-of-function research should be done because it would create these potential super viruses. And the controversy was over whether that research also should be published because the fear was that it could be used by potential bioterrorists. So researchers actually called a halt to it for a while, and the federal government has been working out additional safeguards for work like this.

HOBSON: Yeah. So it sort of sounds like a Stephen King novel or a...


HOBSON: ...Dan Brown novel, scientists playing around with these dangerous bugs. But aren't these viruses carefully contained in alabamine? How much of this threat really exists?

GOLDBERG: Well, yes, we'd like to think they're carefully contained. They are, but it depends on who you talk to. Now, the scientists who want to do this research say there are multiple levels of safeguards and the potential benefits outweigh the risks. But I spoke with Professor Marc Lipsitch, an expert on the epidemiology of flu at the Harvard School of Public Health. And he says the trouble is that if the experiments work, they could produce a virus that has an almost unprecedented combination of being able to spread and being able to kill people.

MARC LIPSITCH: Viruses get released from very high containment labs. Doesn't happen much and, you know, we're pretty good at containing things. But pretty good is not good enough if the threat is of a strain that can transmit and really infect large factions of the local population.

GOLDBERG: So that's a very scary prospect. Pretty good doesn't sound so good.

HOBSON: Yeah. So, Carey, quickly in the few seconds we have left, should we be scared that this new strain is going to become the pandemic that everyone's worried about?

GOLDBERG: Well, personally, I can always be scared. But let's end on a reassuring note. Professor Lipsitch says that, first of all, it's not for sure that this case in China really was human-to-human transmission. And even if it is human to human, he says that's not unprecedented. The really scary thing that's not happening at this point is an avian flu virus that's easily transmitted from human to human. There is no sign of that at this point.

HOBSON: Carey Goldberg of WBUR. You can find her CommonHealth blog at Carey, thanks so much.

GOLDBERG: You're welcome.

HOBSON: And up next, Robin interviews actor Ethan Hawke. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.