The federal government announced Wednesday a special oversight process for experiments that involve tinkering with a new strain of avian flu detected in Asia earlier this year, but the decision has not come without controversy.
Such experiments, which can produce forms of the H7N9 virus that are more dangerous to people, are aimed at understanding the pathogen that has infected more than 130 people in China and killed about a third of them. Researchers also announced Wednesday that they had seen the first evidence that the virus had spread from person to person.
The knowledge gained from this type of research could help prepare health officials for a potential pandemic and lead to the development of new therapies or vaccines, but also poses scary what-if scenarios, ranging from the accidental escape of a lethal virus into the wild, to the information falling into the hands of bioterrorists.
The debate over how to handle research into such potentially deadly pathogens has been raging since early 2012, after researchers working on another strain of avian flu, H5N1, agreed to a voluntarily halt on experiments. That moratorium was lifted earlier this year, after policy makers put in place a framework for doing research that could result in more dangerous strains of the virus.
The announcement that extra oversight would be needed to do similar experiments on H7N9, made in the journals Science and Nature, will only fuel the ongoing debate about whether to do such research at all — and how to ensure it occurs safely. A group of scientists have laid out the types of experiments that should be performed on H7N9 in the journal Science, including experiments that assess the possibility that the virus could spread between mammals and evaluate the possibility of drug resistance. None of those researchers are from Boston-area institutions, and scientists at Boston University’s biolab, also known as the National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory, have no plans to work on H7N9, a spokeswoman said.
Local experts on biosafety and infectious disease had a range of responses to the new announcements.
Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, said in an e-mail that the proposed new H7N9 experiments raise the same concerns sparked by the work on H5N1.
“The benefits are sketchy and uncertain for doing this kind of research, while the risk of creating a highly virulent, highly transmissible strain of flu are significant; the probability of an accidental or deliberate release is small, but the consequences would be potentially staggering,’’ Lipsitch wrote in an e-mail. “The fact that the global population is being put at risk by such experiments, to an appreciable but unknown degree, without being informed, much less consenting, is an ethical problem that has not been faced squarely.’’
Lipsitch is concerned that no real effort has been made to calculate the risk of such research, making it impossible to make an informed decision about how those compare to the potential benefits of new insight. He also believes that valuable knowledge could be gained from such research, but that equivalent progress could be made by working on other viruses that pose less of a threat.
Jeanne Guillemin, a senior advisor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program said that oversight should not be a one-time event, and that while a committee that reviews and approves experiments is an important step, one that oversees the work as it unfurls is also necessary.
“Scientific experiments often have unexpected twists and turn and, given the epidemic risks associated with dangerous avian flu strains, it is reasonable for the public to expect a disinterested, responsible committee to intermittently check what is happening in the lab,’’ Guillemin wrote in an e-mail.
She emphasized the importance of public education about the research that is being done, beyond simply making technical details of grant applications publicly available.
“One question I always like asking is: who is responsible if something goes wrong?’’ Guillemin wrote in an e-mail. “It is a question for which the public deserves an answer.“