The Superflu: Researchers’ Answer to H7N9
Though this year’s flu season has officially come to a close, researchers harbor fears of a flu pandemic in the near future. Their solution? To engineer a flu virus that is more lethal than anything we have ever seen before.
Met with heated, and arguably warranted controversy, researchers from theNetherland’s Erasmus Medical Center announced their plans to develop a virulent strain of the flu virus yesterday. The team of researchers plan to use H7N9, responsible for the death of 43 people in China over the span of a mere six months, as the backbone of their research.
Why the H7N9 strain? Though equally deadly, the H7N9 virus differs from other virulent strains of the flu seen in the past (including the avian and swine strains) because it cannot be transmitted through the air, or from person to person—yet. Researchers estimate that if the H7N9 virus were to become airborne, or develop the capacity to travel from human to human, rates of infection and death would rise exponentially.
In what is known as gain of function (GOP) research, researchers plan to manipulate the genomic structure of H7N9 to determine which genes enhance the virus’ capability of being transmitted between mammals, thereby creating a superflu: a new, deadlier H7N9 that can be transmitted from person to person.
Researchers hope that understanding what allows for such transmission on the genetic level will help aid further research on a vaccine, or at least aid in prevention measures.
In short, in the words of lead researcher Ron Fouchier, they hope that their efforts will allow humans to “stay ahead of the game.”
The research project is currently under high scrutiny by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, and has yet to receive the green light for funding from the US.
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