Wain-Hobson: Governments must address transmissibility studies

Governments, regulatory authorities and funders of viral-engineering studies must address the dangers posed by gain-of-function studies, according to an official with the Foundation for Vaccine Research.

Simon Wain-Hobson, the chair of the Washington, D.C.-based organization, made his comments less than two months after influenza virologists lifted a voluntary moratorium on work to make the H5N1 avian flu virus more transmissible in mammals. These gain-of-function studies identify combinations of mutations that could enable the animal virus to jump to humans, allowing scientists to better prepare scientific defenses against the threat, Nature reports.

Wain-Hobson said that scientists in this field must learn lessons from the past. He said scientists should first determine if the virological basis for the study is sound.

"The outcomes of the H5N1 experiments are dominated by the artificial-selection systems used," Wain-Hobson said, according to Nature. "If aerosol-transmitted virus is systematically passaged from ferrets with severe respiratory distress, then the research teams will end up with a transmissible and highly virulent strain. Likewise, if animals with mild symptoms are chosen, a transmissible virus of low virulence would ultimately emerge. Whether nature will take any of these courses is unknown."

Wain-Hobson compared the virological basis for the work to dog breeding, a process humans have used to come up with such seemingly unnatural breeds as salukis, whippets, setters and dachshunds.

Wain-Hobson also brought up the issues of who makes the rules and provides oversight to the research, what to do after generating a highly pathogenic and transmissible virus, what would occur if there were a leak or outbreak and the appropriateness of making microbes that are more dangerous in such a densely populated world.

"The global ramifications of GOF research have simply not been sufficiently explored and discussed," Wain-Hobson said, according to Nature. "Influenza virologists are going down a blind alley and the powers that be are blindly letting them go down that alley, which is tantamount to acquiescing. So let's be clear: the end game could be viruses more dangerous than the Spanish flu strain."

Wain-Hobson suggested that all virological GOF work should be suspended until virologists publicly listen and discuss their work and the issues it raises.

"A conference involving all the stakeholders is needed, as happened at Asilomar in the 1970s for recombinant DNA," Wain-Hobson said, according to Nature. "The problem will not go away. It has to be engaged and it has to be done now."