NIH has just approved two projects that aim to turn avian influenza into a potentially deadly human pathogen. The research was “paused” by the US in 2014, but the pause was quietly lifted last year, despite the warnings of hundreds of distinguished scientists from around the world.
For more than a decade now, two scientists–one in the U.S. and one in the Netherlands–have been trying to create a deadly human pathogen from avian influenza. That’s right: they are trying to turn “bird flu,” which does not normally infect people, into a human flu.
Not surprisingly, many scientists are vehemently opposed to this. In mid-2014, a group of them formed the Cambridge Working Group and issued a statement warning of the dangers of this research. The statement was signed by hundreds of scientists at virtually every major U.S. and European university. (Full disclosure: I am one of the signatories.)
In response to these and other concerns, in October 2014 the U.S. government called for a “pause” in this dangerous research. NIH Director Francis Collins said that his agency would study the risks and benefits before proceeding further.
Well, four years later, the risks and benefits haven’t changed, but the NIH has (quietly) just allowed the research to start again, as we learned last week in an exclusive report from Science‘s Jocelyn Kaiser.
I can’t allow this to go unchallenged. This research is so potentially harmful, and offers such little benefit to society, that I fear that NIH is endangering the trust that Congress places in it. And don’t misinterpret me: I’m a huge supporter of NIH, and I’ve argued before that it’s one of the best investments the American public can make. But they got this one really, really wrong.
For those who might not know, the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide (3% of the entire world population at the time), was caused by a strain of avian influenza that made the jump into humans. The 1918 flu was so deadly that it “killed more American soldiers and sailors during World War I than did enemy weapons.”
Not surprisingly, then, when other scientists (including me) learned about the efforts to turn bird flu into a human flu, we asked: why the heck would anyone do that? The answers were and still are unsatisfactory: claims such as “we’ll learn more about the pandemic potential of the flu” and “we’ll be better prepared for an avian flu pandemic if one occurs.” These are hand-waving arguments that may sound reasonable, but they promise only vague benefits while ignoring the dangers of this research. If the research succeeds, and one of the newly-designed, highly virulent flu strains escapes, the damage could be horrific.
One of the deadliest strains of avian flu circulating today is H5N1. This strain has occasionally jumped from birds to humans, with a mortality rate approaching 50%, far more deadly than any human flu. Fortunately, the virus has never gained the ability to be transmitted directly between humans.
That is, it didn’t have this ability until two scientists, Ron Fouchier in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, engineered it to gain this ability. (Actually, their work showed that the virus could be transmitted between ferrets, not humans, for the obvious reason that you can’t ethically test this on humans.)