Mutant Influenza Virus Developed
Although the H7N9 virus has not spread from human-to-human yet (other than in the one isolated and specific incident reported here earlier), researchers are still trying to establish whether it is likely to happen. The most upfront way to do this is by creating a mutant form of the virus, and then put it to the test using animal models. Here we explore what is currently known about this development.
We were made aware of this research after hearing about the publications in Nature and Science by prominent researchers in the field. Essentially, it was argued that by using so-called gain of function science (GOF), it would be possible to identify whether there were any combinations of genetic mutations that could lead the H7N9 virus to spread quickly between humans. The researchers stressed that knowing what mutations could play a part in the development of a pandemic, also holds the key to understanding how big of a threat the current H7N9 virus is, and helps with the development of vaccinations and treatments.
This type research is not without its controversy, as many critics have argued that developing mutations and publishing the results has the potential to enable bio-terrorism. However, the researchers involved are in strictly controlled environments and will be working under the highest level of bio security.
We are not surprised that this research has been seen as controversial, as there have been past incidences in bird-flu research that have led to research moratoriums. However, we feel that stopping all research in this field will do little to manage the threat of bio-terrorism. Research is knowledge, and what people do with it may differ, but that does not make it less valuable or less needed. If bio-terrorism is a threat, then there are other measures that need to be taken.
There is a substantial amount of research related to the H7N9 virus that is being carried out at the moment. It is our hope that the findings of those studies and the findings from GOF research help form a fuller understanding of the virus.
If you want to read more about H7N9 then we recommend this science blog - http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130821132734.htm