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article imageScientists call for caution over 'dangerous' bird flu research

By Tim Sandle     Jan 4, 2014 in Science
A group of scientists has called on the European Commission to evaluate the risks and benefits of research that could make deadly viruses more transmissible.
Over 50 scientists have signed a letter to European Commission (EC) president José Manuel Barroso urging the body to hold a conference to discuss the wisdom of continuing with so-called “gain-of-function” studies, in which viruses are mutated to become more transmissible between mammals.
This mirrors debate in the U.S., where it was announced in 2012 that some science researchers controversially created a form of bird flu that was easily transmissible by air. The controversy surrounding this was reported on by Digital Journal.
Influenza A virus subtype H5N1 is also known as "bird flu." The virus is highly pathogenic. Research, reported by the Harvard Gazette, has recently shown that a highly contagious strain of H5N1, one that might allow airborne transmission between mammals, can be reached in only a few mutations. This raises the specter of a pandemic or even bioterrorism.
Discussing the latest European issue further, Columbia University infectious disease researcher and letter signatory Ian Lipkin told the science website Nature: "Gain-of-function research into highly pathogenic microbes with pandemic potential has global implications for public health. We are not seeking to shut down all gain-of-function research, but asking that stakeholders meet to establish guidelines for doing it."
The debate centers on the studies of virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Fouchier's work involves genetic manipulations, which result is the mutation of the deadly H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus so that it can be transmitted via airborne particles between ferrets.
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