We wrote earlier this week about the latest avian flu news, concerning a new strain called H7N9 that has killed at least 43 people in Asia. Summary: A probable case of human-to-human transmission has been reported in China, and some flu researchers say they’re going to alter the H7N9 virus in the lab in ways that will make it more dangerous, in order to understand and defend against it better.
I was left a little confused about those highly controversial plans to modify the virus. Very scary. What if it got out? On the other hand, bird flu is scary too. Shouldn’t we do all we can to fight it?
I spoke with Dr. Michael V. Callahan, a Massachusetts General Hospital infectious disease and disaster medicine physician who deploys to large-scale disease outbreaks. He’s the director of a Department of Defense-funded project to predict and defend against dangerous virus mutations. He is also an expert on flu outbreaks and one of the few Americans to have treated H7N9 patients last March in China.
How, I asked, does he see the letters in Science and Nature announcing the researchers’ plans to modify the H7N9 virus?
“In the right environment, with peer review, these gains of function studies are revealing and will help us home in on those conserved, critical elements of influenza that we might someday be able to use to block [all strains of flu] with one vaccine,” he said.
So how about the suggestion in the letter that the research should begin quickly in hopes of producing something of value by this winter?
“Both unwise and impossible,” he answered. “DARPA [The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] has developed the world’s fastest pathogen-to-vaccine capability, capable of 100 million doses in three months. This is the only process that could deliver vaccine by November, the start of flu season.”
“Unfortunately, the vaccine capability is not fully approved by the FDA. The traditional cell and egg based vaccine systems require months to develop a ‘production strain,’ a hybrid of H7N9 and a ‘tame’ strain, which can be placed in cells and eggs. Continue reading