Chinese scientists are being criticized for their “appalling irresponsibility” after they intentionally developed a new mutant influenza strain in a veterinary laboratory, the Independent reported.
Experts have warned that the new virus strains could potentially escape the lab, which could cause a global pandemic and lead to the deaths of millions.
The viral mixing experiment was led by Professor Hualan Chen, director of China’s National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory at Harbin Veterinary Research Institute. Chen and her colleagues mixed parts of the H5N1 bird flu virus with a 2009 strain of the H1N1 virus.
The H5N1 virus is not easily transmitted from person to person, but infections of this strain are highly lethal. The H1N1 strain used is very easily transmitted, making the combination of the two strains extremely dangerous.
According to the researchers, the study was meant to imitate how flu hybrids are created in nature, comparable to when pigs are infected with two different virus strains.
“The studies demonstrated that H5N1 viruses have the potential to acquire mammalian transmissibility by re-assortment with the human influenza viruses,” Professor Chen said in an e-mail.
“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,” she said.
Chen and her colleagues were able to create 127 different virus hybrids, five of which were airborne transmittable between guinea pigs in the lab.
Many experts have quickly slammed the research, including Lord Robert May, the Baron May of Oxford and former chief scientific advisor to the British government. Lord May said the study did nothing to further scientists’ understanding of flu pandemics.
“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 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.”