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expert reaction to journal correspondence on plans for gain-of-function experiments on H7N9

Plans for ‘gain-of-function’ experiments on the H7N9 bird-flu virus were announced by  prominent influenza-virus researchers in both Nature and Science.


Dr John McCauley, Director, WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, & Division of Virology, MRC National Institute for Medical Research, said:

“Gain of function experiments for the H7N9 virus work should be directed to address well-defined questions. With this, useful information is likely to be obtained relating to the virulence and pathogenic potential of the new zoonotic avian influenza virus. This information will improve pandemic preparedness.”


Dr Peter Horby, Senior Clinical Research Fellow, Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Hanoi, Vietnam, said:

“The reports in Nature of the intentions to pursue and scrutinize studies of ‘gain of function’ for H7N9 viruses should be welcomed. With adequate biological safety controls and oversight, these studies can provide step-changes in our understanding of the molecular determinants of the virulence, infectivity, and transmissibility of emerging influenza viruses. This understanding is essential for surveillance and risk assessment, and indeed these studies may help us understand why H5N1, H7N7, and H7N9 viruses have not become pandemic viruses, whilst others such as the 2009 H1N1 virus have. The open debate of the intention, necessity and scrutiny of these kinds of studies is a healthy demonstration of a vibrant, passionate and progressive science.”


Prof Wendy Barclay, Chair in Influenza Virology, Imperial College London, said:

“The gain-of-function experiments are a natural extension of the work that has already shown limited transmissibility of the wild type virus – it would be ludicrous not to do them and they will be performed under appropriate containment. They allow us to see how the virus might evolve and what we can expect from nature.

“This type of work is like fitting glasses for someone who can’t see well; without the glasses the vision is blurred and uncertain, with them you can focus on the world and deal with it a lot more easily.”


‘Gain-of-function experiments on H7N9’ by Fouchier and Kawaoka,  published in Nature & Science on Wednesday 7th August.

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