Professor of epidemiology, Dr Mark Lipsitch, Harvard School of Public Health, presented his views last week at the conference, Options for Control of Influenza VIII.
His talk, entitled Transmissibility GOF Experiments with HPAI: Interesting Science but not worth the risk of an accidental pandemic, noted that these experiments will not (yet) produce results that are balanced by the risk of an accidental pandemic. An accident that is not beyond the realms of reality since such accidents have happened (FMDV in 2007, SARS in 2004 and possibly H1N1 in 1977) in high level biosecurity laboratories (BSL3/PC3). The required standards for these labs differ from country to country.
Further, Lipsitch noted, we don't need GOF studies for vaccine design when currently effective vaccines target haemagglutinin (HA) and not other influenza segments. Further our influenza surveillance is poor and our primary animal model for use in GOF studies for high-pathogenicity influenza virus, ferrets does not always "perform" as we expect it to.
So Lipsitch summarizes, there is much work still to be done to nail down influenza virus variability, impact of host genetic variation and whether before considering more GOF work. Any real benefit to offset the risk of GOF studies may simply be over-stated.
I enjoyed presentation this very much and it has greatly informed my understanding of the argument. Dr Lipsitch's views are clearly thought out and presented in a logical order intended to address some statements/justifications from the proponents of GOF influenza transmission studies.
Thanks to Avian Flu Diary for posting on this earlier.