Think tank sees big risks in flu gain-of-function research…””gain of function” research poses a serious outbreak risk.”

Saturday, September 7, 2013
By Paul Martin

Robert Roos
Sep 06, 2013

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Washington, DC, group that works to limit the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, contends in a risk assessment report that “gain of function” (GOF) research on highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) viruses poses a serious risk of triggering a deadly flu outbreak.

The report attempts to estimate the risk of accidental infection of a lab worker and ensuing transmission of the virus to others on public transportation. It concludes that 1 year of research by one lab poses a risk of releasing a virus that would cause between 180 and 1,100 deaths, and that research by additional labs and for longer periods would multiply this risk.

The assessment was written by Lynn C. Klotz, senior science fellow at the center and a former Harvard professor and biotechnology executive. The report is one of very few attempts thus far to estimate the risk associated with research that involves manipulating highly pathogenic avian flu viruses such as H5N1 to make them more transmissible in mammals. A major aim of such experiments is to identify dangerous mutations so that scientists can watch for them in circulating viruses.

Last year two teams of scientists published studies that involved generating mutant H5N1 viruses that showed airborne transmissibility in ferrets. The studies were published only after a prolonged controversy and scrutiny of the findings by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biodefense (NSABB), which was concerned that publishing the details would pose a risk of the intentional or accidental release of dangerous viruses.

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