Experiments with potential pandemic flu strains pose deadly risk

In the wake of the recent accidental exposure of at least 75 workers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to anthrax, Harvard School of Public Health’s (HSPH) Marc Lipsitch argues that experiments aimed at creating deadly pathogens—particularly those that could start a pandemic—should stop.

“We should be glad that it was only anthrax” released at the CDC, Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at HSPH, wrote in a June 29, 2014 New York Times editorial. Anthrax, while dangerous, isn’t contagious, but other experiments—with highly contagious, virulent flu strains—have been taking place around the world, Lipsitch wrote. In these experiments, scientists study how dangerous flu viruses pass between ferrets, hoping to learn how these strains might pass between humans and set off a pandemic.

But the experiments themselves risk spreading deadly flu, because the labs where they’re conducted can never be 100% safe, Lipsitch wrote. He also pointed out that the most important way to stop potential pandemics is to develop good vaccines, which depends more on learning to induce effective immune responses than on finding out which genetic sequences make a virus transmissible—which is the goal of the current ferret experiments.

Given that there have been several other instances in which deadly viruses have spread after accidentally being released from high-containment labs, “We should stop creating new potential pandemic flu strains and shift the research dollars to safer, more productive flu studies,” Lipsitch wrote.

Read the New York Times editorial: Anthrax? That’s Not the Real Worry

Learn more

Bird flu experiments pose risk of accidental release (HSPH release)

Restrict future research on bird flu virus, HSPH experts recommend (HSPH news)