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Scientists Attract Fury With Research of Creation of Hybrid Bird Flu Virus that Could Cause Pandemic

Update Date: May 03, 2013 12:56 PM EDT

All eyes right now are on the H7N9 virus that has killed 26 people and infected 128. While health officials still do not know how the disease is spread or how many people have had it, a group of researchers has performed a study in order to make a different strain of virus transmissible among humans. The study has caused an outcry among many members of the scientific community, many of whom call the work dangerous and irresponsible.

According to Nature, the team of researchers has worked to combine H5N1 and H1N1. H5N1 is highly feared but has not shown itself to be transmissible between humans, while H1N1, the virus behind the 2009 swine flu pandemic, is highly contagious to humans, though not very deadly. The researchers say that they are attempting to mimic the evolution that would occur when two viruses occupy the same cell and exchange genes. Though these viruses have not created hybrids yet, it is possible that they could; they overlap in geographical areas and the species that they infect. H1N1, in particular, is very prone to this process called "reassortment".

"The studies demonstrated that H5N1 viruses have the potential to acquire mammalian transmissibility by re-assortment with the human influenza viruses," Professor Hualan Chen, the director of China's National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory, said in an email to The Independent. "This tells us that high attention should be paid to monitor the emergence of such mammalian-transmissible virus in nature to prevent a possible pandemic caused by H5N1 virus. It is difficult to say how easy this will happen, but since the H5N1 and 2009/H1N1 viruses are widely existing in nature, they may have a chance to re-assort." 

However, the research has been met with fury. The response mimics the reaction to a study in which researchers made the flu virus airborne among ferrets. "They claim they are doing this to help develop vaccines and such like. In fact the real reason is that they are driven by blind ambition with no common sense whatsoever," Lord May, of Oxford, told The Independent. "The record of containment in labs like this is not reassuring. They are taking it upon themselves to create human-to-human transmission of very dangerous viruses. It's appallingly irresponsible."

The study was published in the journal Science.

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