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Researchers Plan To Genetically Modify H7N9 Virus To Better Understand Mutations

“Scientists have unveiled plans to genetically engineer a lethal strain of bird flu to understand how it could mutate in nature and trigger a catastrophic pandemic,” The Guardian reports (Sample, 8/7). “Some of the world’s leading flu researchers argue that genetically altering [the H7N9] virus in high-security labs is key to studying how it might mutate in the wild to become a bigger threat to people, maybe even the next pandemic,” Fox News writes (8/7). “In letters published Wednesday in the journals Science and Nature, [Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University in the Netherlands] and colleagues from a dozen research centers in the U.S., Hong Kong and Britain outlined plans for what’s called gain-of-function research — creating potentially stronger strains, including ones that might spread easily through the air between lab animals,” the Associated Press notes (Neergaard, 8/7). The research proposal “comes a day after Chinese scientists reported the first probable case of person-to-person transmission of the H7N9 virus,” VOA News notes (8/7).

“By finding the mutations needed, researchers and 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 defenses,” according to Reuters (8/7). “The proposal still is controversial, with some researchers calling for the very highest level of security for labs pursuing the research,” USA Today writes, adding, “Responding to past concerns about such research, the U.S. government said it will require extra safety measures” (Vergano, 8/7). “The U.S. government has put together new guidelines for conducting H5N1 research, and in a separate letter also published in Nature and Science, authors from the [CDC], the [NIH] and [HHS] affirmed that any H7N9 work funded by the federal government would receive extra oversight,” according to the Los Angeles Times (Brown, 8/7). Science also includes a roundup of researchers’ reactions to the proposed studies (Malakoff, 8/7).