Twenty-two researchers from labs across the world submitted a letter to Nature and Science yesterday detailing their proposed “gain-of-function” research on the avian influenza virus H7N9.

Their work would genetically engineer H7N9 to make it both more virulent and more readily transmissible person-to-person. The research sounds controversial, not the least because one of the scientists involved is Dr. Ron Fouchier, whose on gain-of-function work on H5N1 ingnited furious debate over what should research should and shouldn’t be published.

However, there is a very real possibility that H7N9 will naturally mutate to transmit effectively between people. We already know that the virus is just a single amino acid mutation away from becoming easily transmissible between people. Indeed, news of the first confirmed case of such transmission was published in the British Medical Journal this week.

With a 60% fatality rate and a completely naive global population, the results would be catastrophic. The proposed research would give us an idea of potential pandemic scenarios, giving us a head start on potential vaccine and antiviral development.

It may be controversial, but it’s absolutely necessary.

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