Many of the world’s senior scientists are calling it “appalling irresponsibility” while others defend the research and discount those expressing concern as alarmists or ignorant of the processes and science.
The researchers created the new influenza strains in a veterinary lab. When the world found out what was being cooked in China’s National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory at Harbin Veterinary Research Institute, the outcry put the skids on the research with a worldwide ban on H1N1 research.
The Chinese can’t take all the credit for the 2012 voluntary moratorium that was a direct response their research and that of another research team. (1) However, the moratorium has been lifted and the halt to the Chinese lab proved just a brief bump in the road to creating more deadly virus hybrids.
Biological weapon accusations were hurled when the Chinese gave the go-ahead nod to resume the research. And, on the heels of that decision came an outbreak of a new flu strain, H7N9 that further fueled the negative reaction.
H7N9 is believed to be transmitted from animal to human, but with three reported clusters of human-to-human transmission, concerns are on the rise.
Many people in the medical community are keeping a close eye on China and H7N9 with fears growing as the number of infected continue to rise. Based on past experience, it isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to the possibility of a killer virus escaping the Chinese lab; a virus with the potential to kill millions of people.
It has the makings of a Hollywood film-the end of the world due to a mistake in a lab that sets an apocalyptic virus free on an unsuspecting world.
Why Are Chinese Scientist Creating Flu Hybrids?
So, why on earth would any responsible scientist knowingly create such a deadly virus? The Independent quoted Lord May of Oxford’s reaction to the Chinese lab experiments. The former government chief scientist and past president of the Royal Society stated that, “the Chinese scientists claimed they were creating viruses so they could develop potential vaccines”. (2)
Lord May continued, “In fact the real reason is that they are driven by blind ambition with no common sense whatsoever.” (2)
The Institute’s Director, Professor Chen, led the team of scientists in the first round of research that resulted in “127 different viral hybrids between H5N1 and H1N1, five of which were able to pass by airborne transmission between laboratory guinea pigs”.
It’s been estimated that any of the five hybrid flues could realistically have as high as a 20% fatality rate. That could be as high as 100 million people dead, according to some virologists, such as Pasteur Institute’s Professor Simon Wain-Hobson.
Chinese Scientist Not the First to Create Flu Viruses
The other scientists who have researched H5N1, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, turned it into a “highly infectious ‘airborne’ strain of human flu”, according to the LA Times. (3)
Virology blog strives to relate the scientist’s point-of-view and how research such as this has benefits that outweigh any potential concerns. And, points out that the Fouchier and Kawaoka strain was infectious only to the lab ferrets used in the research and not humans.
In fact, “one of the benefits of influenza H5N1 research is to understand what regulates aerosol transmission of the virus”. (4)
There clearly cannot be any argument that the stated purpose of such research is knowledge that will eventually led to a cure or vaccine. The underlying issue that makes lay people nervous and apprehensive about scientists researching deadly viruses the way the Chinese lab reportedly has done is the danger those hybrid viruses pose and the reason such research is feared.
The chance of human error or the lack of vigilance over safety and security measures that ensure the viruses remain confined within the labs further concerns most people, be they a scientist or a lay person.
It’s unrealistic to assume that every lab in the world uses best practices and principles or that they are diligent in oversight. When hybrid viruses that reportedly have nothing to do with creating a vaccine are explored, then motives are certainly going to be called into question.
It doesn’t require a science degree to comprehend the potential for misuse, abuse or the dangers that accidents can pose to the world population. It would be naive to simply trust that such threats are imagined or worse simply a matter of not understanding the science.