Scientists attack 'crazy' avian flu research

Jun 12, 2014

Deadly virus, similar to one that killed 50 million people in 1918, is created in an American lab

Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Scientists have criticised a "crazy" and "dangerous" experiment in which researchers created a potentially deadly strand of avian flu in a high-security laboratory.

According to The Guardian, the team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison employed the scientific process of reverse genetics to construct a new virus using fragments of previously discovered "wild bird flu strains". The scientists then engineered the virus into a form in which it could spread through the air among animals and humans.

The current strain is "only 3 per cent different" from the flu virus that killed almost 50 million people during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
The experiment's lead scientist, Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka, said that creating the virus would "demonstrate the value of continued surveillance" of avian flu strains, Sky News reported.

Kawaoka also said the experiment revealed "the need for improved influenza vaccines and antivirals", which, if acted upon, could help to save lives.

However, prominent scientists from around the world have condemned Kawaoka's work as "risky" and "dangerous".

Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch, who has previously written about the dangers of such viral experiments, said that similar activities were hazardous "even in the safest labs". Virologist Simon Wain-Hobson said the study showed "a profound lack of respect for the collective decision-making process ... shown in fighting infections".

The most outspoken criticism came from Lord May, a former chief scientific adviser to the British government, who said the experiment was "dangerous" and crazy".

He said the risks involved in creating viruses for research purposes outweighed the threat posed by those in the wild.

"There is a danger, but it's not arising from the viruses out there in the animals," he said. "It's arising from the labs of grossly ambitious people".

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