Researchers at the China National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory have come under fire for creating new deadly and highly contagious strains of the influenza virus. According to The Independent, Professor Hualan Chen and her team deliberately mixed the 2009 strain of H5N1 bird-flu virus — which is incredibly lethal but is not easily transmitted between people — with a 2009 strain of H1N1 flu virus, which is known to be very infectious. The tests have been branded "appallingly irresponsible" by a former UK government chief scientist over worries that the new strains could escape laboratory environments and cause a global pandemic.
Five H5N1 and H1N1 hybrids passed via airborne transmission between laboratory guinea pigs
Chen has already created 127 viral hybrids in an attempt to emulate what happens when animals are coinfected with two different strains of the influenza virus. Early studies have shown that H5N1 bird-flu viruses can be adapted for transmission between humans, with five H5N1 and H1N1 hybrids passing via airborne transmission between laboratory guinea pigs. The effects on humans are unknown, but scientists believe it is very likely that some — if not all — of the hybrids could be transmitted between humans. While virologist Professor Simon Wain-Hobson of the Pasteur Institute in Paris believes that Chen's work is "a fabulous piece of virology," he warns that the research will be of little use for the development of vaccines or tracking of new flu viruses.
Last year, the US government joined scientists worldwide by temporarily suspending research on H5N1 pathogens. However, it announced that research will resume this year under tighter regulations as it continues its efforts to develop a vaccine "to prepare for a possible pandemic." Chinese scientists are also currently tracking the source of a new strain of H7N9 bird flu that's killed 27 people in the country, narrowing it down to chicken sold in the markets of Zhejiang, China. While the transmission rate is low, experts have warned that mutations could adapt the strain's behavior and pose more of a risk to humans — but it isn't likely to be the last outbreak we'll see out of the country.