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U of M researcher skeptical of bird flu research

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In an effort to get ahead of a deadly strain of bird flu circulating in China that's killed more than 40 people, flu researchers are planning to conduct a controversial study of the new strain, H7N9, by recreating it.

An outbreak of the virus was first reported in April in people that had been exposed to infected poultry or contaminated environments, according the Centers for Disease Control. No cases have been reported outside of China.

Even though the U.S. government affirmed that any H7N9 work funded by the federal government would receive extra oversight, generating versions of a potentially dangerous flu strain that scientists know little about has some critics worried, including University of Minnesota infectious disease researcher Michael Osterholm.

Osterholm tells the Los Angeles Times that he's concerned scientists who aren't getting U.S. funding could still conduct dangerous work that may not be appropriately monitored, risking the escape of flu strains.

Two years ago, similar research on the H5N1 bird flu also ignited a debate.

Proponents say the research is critical to monitor mutations in the strain and design better antiviral drugs, but Osterholm says the benefit of the 2011 research doesn't outweigh the risk.

Osterholm told the Associated Press that there's still no scientific evidence that mutations that appear most dangerous in the lab could enable researchers to predict a pandemic.

"It hasn't happened. Why should we believe it's going to happen with H7N9?" Osterholm said to The Canadian Press.

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