TWO years ago a pair of scientists sparked fears of a devastating virus. Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre, in Rotterdam, separately found ways to make a strain of bird flu called H5N1 more contagious. Critics fretted that terrorists might use this knowledge to cook up a biological weapon. American officials ordered that the papers be redacted. Further research was put on hold. But after much debate, the papers were published in full last year. And now, in a letter to Nature and Science published this week, Dr Kawaoka and Dr Fouchier propose that similar studies of H7N9, another strain of influenza now circulating in China, should be carried out.
American health officials… explained how they would review studies that tried to enhance the transmissibility of H7N9. The process is similar to that for H5N1. It is unclear exactly how long such a review would take, however, and viruses may adapt more quickly than bureaucrats and academics.
A really good piece from The Economist – as one should expect, I suppose!
I DO like that last paragraph – because it encapsulates everything I think about the nonsense that surrounds discussions of this kind of work. Really, the viruses are out there doing what it is that viruses do, and influenza viruses in particular do really well: adapting and changing, by exploring sequence and recombination and reassortment space in order to maximise their own transmission and survival.
And if that survival involves adapting to human-to-human transmission, then so be it: the virus doesn’t care. And we really, really need to be able to determine how close wild viruses are to doing just that, because the alternative could be The Big One.
Like 1918, but worse.
See on www.economist.com