The U.S. government approved a set of new experiments that could strengthen the current version of bird flu virus. The experiments were previously shut down for four years due to their risky nature. The modification of bird flu virus poses deadly risks to humans.
According to Sciencemag.org, the National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) will begin funding the lab experiments in a matter of weeks.
The labs modify pathogens, which can render a virus such as bird flu more potent and more easily transferable between people and animals. One of the top researchers on board with the renewed bird flu modification research applauded the government’s green light.
“We are glad the United States government weighed the risks and benefits… and developed new oversight mechanisms. We know that it does carry risks. We also believe it is important work to protect human health,” says Yoshi Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo.
But Kawaoka’s history in pathogen modification is checkered. In 2011, alongside researcher Ronald Fouchier, Kawaoka helped modify avian flu, allowing it to transfer between ferrets. The research, accomplished under the guise of improving human understanding of how the flu spreads, caused a backlash by concerned scientists and citizens. Modifying the avian viruses ability to transfer in animals risks allowing the virus to more easily transfer to humans, as well. If a modified virus escapes a lab, the potential for a disastrous pandemic becomes a legitimate global threat.
What if an amped up bird flu found its way into the hands of a global terrorist organization?
Yoshi Kawaoka Flu Experiments Shut Down In 2014
In October of 2014, the government, feeling pressure from critics of pathogen modification experiments, paused funding on 18 lab experiments involved with modifications of MERs, SARS and influenza viruses.
However, in December of 2017, the NIH changed course and re-approved funding for virus modification experiments. This means that Kawaoka and Fouchier labs are back in business. While health officials conducted risk analysis over the laboratory work, it is expected that the nature of the experiments will be roughly the same structure. A focus on increased safety protocols aimed at reducing the potential for a virus to escape is expected, but how much such measures reduce risks are largely unknown.
Kawaoka’s H5N1 grant is the same one from 2014. He, alongside his old lab partner, Fouchier, will use respiratory droplets to infect ferrets. This go round, Kawaoka’s team will be required to report the identification of H5N1 strains capable of spreading in ferrets to the NIAID. Additionally, he must report any strain found to be resistant to antiviral drugs.