Policy Forum

Evolution, Safety, and Highly Pathogenic Influenza Viruses

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Science  22 Jun 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6088, pp. 1529-1531
DOI: 10.1126/science.1223204


Experience with influenza has shown that predictions of virus phenotype or fitness from nucleotide sequence are imperfect and that predicting the timing and course of evolution is extremely difficult. Such uncertainty means that the risk of experiments with mammalian-transmissible, possibly highly virulent influenza viruses remains high even if some aspects of their laboratory biology are reassuring; it also implies limitations on the ability of laboratory observations to guide interpretation of surveillance of strains in the field. Thus, we propose that future experiments with virulent pathogens whose accidental or deliberate release could lead to extensive spread in human populations should be limited by explicit risk-benefit considerations.

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