H7N9 Research is Necessary
Recently, a group of 22 prominent influenza biologists sent a letter to Nature and Science describing a proposal to study the novel H7N9 virus with "gain of function" experiments. In gain of function experiments, scientists add to the system, for example a gene for protein expression or amino acid changes to enhance replicative ability or transmission. In this specific case, the authors of the letter outline their gain of function experiments which fall into the following categories: immunogenicity, adaptation, resistance, transmission, and pathogenicity. You can read the letter from Nature here. If you are so inclined, you can also read an excellent summary and opinion of the letter here.
The letter is authored by Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka (plus 20 other biologists) and is obviously a proactive measure to address the scientific and public backlash that has accompanied the proposed research. A few years back, these two scientists also performed gain of function experiments on the then novel H5N1 influenza virus and demonstrated that certain mutations enhance transmissibility between ferrets (more on this in a moment). These papers were eventually published but only after much review by selected panels of scientists and a corresponding moratorium on H5N1 research. Ultimately, we learned important information from these papers.
The publication of this letter has, understandably, generated plenty of discussion both in the scientific community and the lay press. Scientists have been quoted as being dismissive of the need to do these kinds of experiments. And the popular press has predictably jumped over this issue with typical scaremongering headlines like "Mad scientists determined to create deadly Frankenvirus" (ok, I just picked the worst I found from a "natural health" website) or, "Scientists want to make a deadly new superflu even deadlier." These headlines are crazy. Better ones are out there, like the one from Livescience, "H7N9 Bird Flu to Undergo Genetic Tweaking".
The overall gist of the opposition is that a) we aren't going to learn anything from these experiments that we can use and/or b) the risk outweighs the benefits. To these objections I ask, what world is this? Why wouldn't we want to be out ahead of the virus instead of waiting for the virus to acquire these changes itself? (It might, it might not but if the pressure or opportunity is there it will.) Saying things like "it's laughable to claim that.." these experiments could not provide value, at least in the sense of predicting pandemics is baffling to me. Have scientists forgotten WHY they became scientists?
There are some misconceptions floating around about this and previous research and I feel it is necessary to take one of these objection type posts and offer counterpoints in defense of the research. Of course everyone is entitled to his/her own scientific opinion.
The author of the post in question is Steven Salzberg, Ph.D., a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In it, he takes issue with many of the statements in the Fouchier et al. letter. You can read his post here. In total fairness, after reading his blog on this issue I floated around on other posts and I like the site; I just take issue with this post. Below are his objections and then my responses.
"Fouchier is the same scientist who, two years ago, adapted the highly pathogenic H5N1 flu strain so that it could be passed from human to human, which it cannot do in its natural form. "
"Sorry, but I'm not reassured. Fouchier's group wants to do this research because it's all they know how to do - and, I suspect, because they enjoy the publicity. Despite their claims that the research is vital to our understanding of the flu, none of their past work, including their work on H5N1, has changed our ability to respond to a pandemic. "
"Fouchier and his colleagues can't do surveillance, nor do they work on vaccine development. They have laboratories where they can engineer the flu virus to make new strains, so that's what they want to do"
"Here's a thought: put me on the panel: I've published multiple research papers on the influenza virus (including this paper in Nature and this paper on H5N1 avian flu), so I think it's fair to say I'm qualified."
But let's take a step back and separate ourselves from the "this virus is going to escape the lab and kill us all" thought process. What if these gain of function experiments reveal a key feature of transmission and virulence, for example, an amino acid change in a protein? I'd think that would be helpful when dealing with the next novel influenza virus. If this novel virus also contained those changes we could say "okay, this has significant public health implications and we are going to be extra vigilant at reducing spread."
And, if this is being said about emerging flu viruses, how come it's not being said about MERS, Ebola, Rabies, Vaccinia, Measles etc? Why not just stop ALL VIRUS RESEARCH because there is a risk involved? Because it doesn't make sense.