A team of Chinese researchers have deliberately created deadly new strains of influenza in a veterinary laboratory — and are now on the receiving end of severe criticism from across the wider scientific community. The controversial research, carried out at China’s National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory at Harbin Veterinary Research Institute, has mixed the H5N1 bird-flu virus — which is lethal but not easily transmitted between humans — with a 2009 strain of H1N1 that is very infectious to humans. That's a bad combination as far as humankind is concerned.
The researchers claim they were attempting to emulate what happens in nature when two strains come together to form a hybrids, with shared genetic material. The result is, according to the researchers, “H5N1 viruses [that] have the potential to acquire mammalian transmissibility”. In total, the team created 127 different viral hybrids — five of which were shown to easily pass through the air between laboratory guinea pigs. Great!
Understandably, the researchers are receiving their fair share of criticism. For instance, Robert May, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, told The Independent:
“They claim they are doing this to help develop vaccines and such like. In fact the real reason is that they are driven by blind ambition with no common sense whatsoever. The record of containment in labs like this is not reassuring. They are taking it upon themselves to create human-to-human transmission of very dangerous viruses. It’s appallingly irresponsible.”
It remains unclear how easily the hybrids would spread between humans, and for that matter how lethal they would be if they did. But to an extent, that's not really the point: the concern here is over the fact that the researchers are even trying to create a virus which combines transmissibility and lethality in the first place.
It's not the first time such studies have raised concerns. Back in 2011, researchers from Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam and University of Wisconsin, Madison created a version of H5N1 that could be passed between ferrets through the air. That incident bought about a moratorium which saw research cease for an extended period. It remains unclear what the fallout from the Chinese research will be. [The Independent]