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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Scientists to alter H7N9, making it deadlier

Earlier this month 22 researchers co-signed a letter, announcing their intent to genetically alter the H7N9 virus, making it both more resistant to drug treatments and easier to transmit from human-to-human. They assert the procedure, called a 'gain-of-function study,' will allow them to ascertain in advance the bird flu's track of mutations before they have even occurred, which makes the scientists confident the data will aid in the battle against future outbreaks.

Critics are blasting the proposed study, pointing out the absurdity of making an already virulent strain more deadly. Even in controlled environments, they argue, containment procedures are not 100% secure, thus the danger of the re-engineered virus entering the public sphere (either by accident or via terrorism) is very real. They assert further that nature seldom follows patterns established in laboratories, thus it is unlikely the information yielded from such a study would assist in preventing a pandemic.

Gain-of-function mutations are especially dangerous, because - as the name suggests - they cause a virus to evolve into deadlier strains, essentially allowing it to gain functionality. H7N9 has already set one precedent, being the first bird-flu virus which has jumped from human-to-human, thus concerns about toying with it are intense; of the 134 human cases documented since April of this year 44 people have perished.

Note: Post was edited to correct spelling error in headline - SB.

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