Now Fouchier, Kawaoka, and other researchers want to do a similar thing with H7N9, another potentially dangerous avian influenza virus, and they want the world to know what they're doing and why.
"We wanted to be transparent," Kawaoka told DNews. "We learned from H5N1 experience that there were many misunderstandings about our research. By publishing this statement, we hope to help the public understand what we are doing and why; we also explain the precautions we take and the oversight we operate under to conduct our research."
What they want to do is genetically modify the H7N9 virus in a variety of ways to uncover the functions of its genes -- research that involves so-called "gain of function" experiments. In the letter to Nature and Science, the researchers outlined five different areas they'd like to study: the virus's potential to adapt to different hosts, its drug resistance, its ability to mutate, its potential to become pathogenic and how to develop effective vaccines.
The individual experiments are unspecified but for example, in one study a team of scientists might genetically modify the virus to make it transmissible through the air. Right now, the virus is likely acquired from touching the mucus or feces from infected chickens, and is not passed along to other humans through sneezing or coughing. (As a side note, there is at least one isolated case in China, reported today in the British Medical Journal, of a woman who may have caught the disease from her father. Both died.)