Correspondence: Gain-of-function research planned for A(H7N9) (pp 150–151)

Scientists plan experiments to increase virulence of Influenza A (H7N9) and induce drug resistance, under strict laboratory controls and safety measures to find out what makes the virus potentially lethal in humans, and how to stop its possible spread.

Plans for ‘gain-of-function’ (GOF) experiments on the A(H7N9) bird-flu virus are announced this week in both Nature and Science in a Correspondence from prominent influenza-virus researchers. In a related Correspondence, also published in both Nature and Science, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announces a new review process for such experiments when they are conducted using HHS funding.

The avian influenza A(H7N9) virus has caused more than 130 serious human cases of flu in China since March, with 43 deaths, but is now under control after the closure of live-bird markets in affected regions and because of the warmer weather. As winter approaches, H7N9 could re-emerge, and the threat of a pandemic looms if the virus turns out to be transmissible between humans.

In their Correspondence, Kawaoka, Fouchier and colleagues outline their strategy to unravel the molecular processes behind the behaviour of H7N9 by manipulating its genetic material in GOF experiments to increase virulence or induce drug resistance in the virus. Through these experiments, they hope to find out what makes the virus potentially lethal in humans, and how to stop its possible spread. The researchers undertake to use stringent safety measures for working with genetically altered viruses, and to observe the tight regulations put in place for flu-virus work in the wake of the controversy over GOF experiments in H5N1.
The authors argue that “to provide information that can assist surveillance activities — thus enabling appropriate public-health preparations to be initiated before a pandemic — experiments that may result in GOF are critical.”

In a related Correspondence, the HHS announces that any HHS-funded studies that are reasonably anticipated to generate H7N9 viruses with increased transmissibility between mammals by respiratory droplets will undergo an additional level of review by the HHS. The review will consider the acceptability of these experiments in light of potential scientific and public-health benefits as well as biosafety and biosecurity risks, and will identify any additional risk-mitigation measures needed.

There is an accompanying Nature Editorial commenting on these Correspondence articles.
Copies of the Correspondence articles and the Nature Editorial will be free to access on

Ron Fouchier (Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, Netherlands)
Tel: +31 10 704 4067; E-mail: [email protected]

Yoshihiro Kawaoka (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA)
Tel: +1 608 265 4925; E-mail: [email protected]

Published: 07 Aug 2013

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