Steven Salzberg on his blog discusses the plan by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands to engineer a new stain of H7N9 that could be far more virulent than the current wild one.
I wonder how much will be learned about ‘flu viruses through these experiments? The work has garnered a lot of headlines and I think it is another case of the summer’s outbreak of vanity science, which I posted on recently.
There is another facet, which is somewhat disturbing, the problem of accidents. The definition of an accident is that it will happen. Our health and safety measures aim to reduce the probability, but this can never be zero. While a nuclear power plant accident is a terrible thing, it is geographically localised. In contrast, a biological agent that lacks built in disabling mechanisms cannot be contained if it gets out. The mobility of a human pathogen = human mobility. So at some point when we have an accident where an engineered strain of a pathogen is released, it would be good to have a stockpile of vaccine. Maybe a more useful endeavor would be for them to produce a cheap and effective vaccine.