Influenza "Gain of Function" Research - Worried? Read on

Marc Lipsitch (Harvard School of Public Health) and many others are highly concerned about influenza "gain of function" research.  Recently, Marc sent around an email that I've posted below as some of you might want to support this effort. Those who would like to learn more about this issue, I suggest you read his recent NYT op-ed, which he mentions below, and also listen to yesterday's NPR Morning Edition discussion on the subject.

Dear Colleagues: 

I want to reach as many colleagues as possible about a very important issue, the growing experimental program underway at institutions around the world to create novel strains of influenza that are transmissible in ferrets, the leading animal model for human flu infection.  These so-called "gain of function" experiments create potential pandemic pathogens from virulent precursors that are not readily transmissible; as such they are a uniquely risky approach to studying influenza. A group of scientists and other concerned experts is calling for a curtailment of such experiments until a serious, quantitative, disinterested risk assessment has been performed to ask whether these experiments offer unique benefits, unattainable by safer means, that justify their unique risks. We have called for an Asilomar-like meeting to start such a process, which would include all points of view under a neutral sponsorship.

These experiments create pathogens which have the potential to spread widely if accidental infection occurs and could, in the worst case, lead to an uncontrolled pandemic. Recent events in federal labs in the US show that even in the leading laboratories, human error leads to the risk of human exposure. This is not an unusual occurrence; in the period 2004-10 there were two loss or release events PER WEEK in biocontainment labs in the US involving Select Agents. While the probability of such incidents in any given lab in a year can be estimated from available data, experiments that deliberately enhance transmissibility of influenza viruses present orders of magnitude greater risk than anthrax or wild-type, poorly contagious avian flu strains, because of the risk of transmission.

I am writing you to invite you to join the Cambridge Working Group,, by supporting our statement that these experiments should be curtailed until there is a serious, quantitative, risk-benefit analysis of what benefits are uniquely obtainable by this exceptionally risky class of experiments, and whether these unique benefits justify the risks involved. Note that we are not calling for a halt to work on dangerous pathogens in general; our call focuses on the creation of novel, transmissible dangerous pathogens, one of many techniques available for studying such organisms but a uniquely dangerous one.

The website has a link for you to add your support to that of a growing number of scientists and others, as well as several pages of links to relevant articles, press coverage and the like. For those interested, I wrote a recent New York Times op-ed on the topic. Much more detailed and technical information is available on the website.

Thank you for considering this request.



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