by Matthew Cobb
I saw this article by the excellent Ian Sample on The Guardian website last night, and was simply appalled. A group of US and Japanese scientists, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the School of Veterinary Medicine at University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to try and recreate the Spanish Flu virus which killed millions of people after WW1. The abstract of their paper, ‘Circulating Avian Influenza Viruses Closely Related to the 1918 Virus Have Pandemic Potential’, published in Cell Host & Microbe, starts off well:
Wild birds harbor a large gene pool of influenza A viruses that have the potential to cause influenza pandemics. Foreseeing and understanding this potential is important for effective surveillance. Our phylogenetic and geographic analyses revealed the global prevalence of avian influenza virus genes whose proteins differ only a few amino acids from the 1918 pandemic influenza virus, suggesting that 1918- like pandemic viruses may emerge in the future.
In other words, as everyone knows, we are in danger of another flu pandemic that could kill millions of people. The abstract continues:
To assess this risk, we generated and characterized a virus composed of avian influenza viral segments with high homology to the 1918 virus. This virus exhibited pathogenicity in mice and ferrets higher than that in an authentic avian influenza virus.
Yes, that’s right. To see whether a virus with characteristics like the 1918 virus would be dangerous, they created it! And you know what? It was dangerous.
The Discussion of the article concludes with a justification of their study:
To prepare for such a scenario [a new pandemic – MC], it is important to understand the molecular mechanisms of pathogenicity and transmissibility of avian influenza viruses. Such information provides support for pandemic preparedness activities (vaccines and antivirals are effective control measures), demonstrates the value of continued surveillance of avian influenza viruses, and emphasizes the need for evaluation and integration of improved risk assessment measures.
I am really not convinced by this, and I am amazed that the paper includes not a word about the apparent ethical/biosecurity issues. People have been arguing about whether to destroy the last remaining samples of smallpox, but we know how to cure that, and it is nowhere near as infectious as the 1918 flu virus. This seems to me to be a colossal and dangerous mistake. Nothing that I have read in the paper convinces me that the insight they have gained is worth the risk of the damn thing getting out.
Lord May, former President of the Royal Society, is quoted in The Guardian article:
“The work they are doing is absolutely crazy. The whole thing is exceedingly dangerous. Yes, there is a danger, but it’s not arising form the viruses out there in the animals, it’s arising from the labs of grossly ambitious people.”
Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, said:
“I am worried that this signals a growing trend to make transmissible novel viruses willy-nilly, without strong public health rationale. This is a risky activity, even in the safest labs. Scientists should not take such risks without strong evidence that the work could save lives, which this paper does not provide,” he added.
Kawaoka defended his work from criticism, referring to some of his previous work:
“There were discussions on the usefulness of stockpiling H5N1 [bird flu] vaccines until our H5N1 papers were published. Similarly, this paper strongly supports stockpiling anti-influenza drugs. If this is not a ‘lifesaving benefit’, what is?” he said.
NIH, who funded the research, said this:
Carole Heilman, director of microbiology and infectious diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Niaid) in the US, said: “This study was conducted as part of a research project on understanding the molecular mechanisms of virulence of the 1918 influenza virus. NIH peer review determined that the research was scientifically meritorious. It was also determined that the information gained had the potential to help public health agencies in their assessment of circulating and newly emerging strains. In addition, NIH determined that all the research was being done under appropriate biosafety conditions and with appropriate risk mitigation measures.”
I’m afraid I’m with Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Pari:
“It’s madness, folly. It shows profound lack of respect for the collective decision-making process we’ve always shown in fighting infections. If society, the intelligent layperson, understood what was going on, they would say ‘What the F are you doing?'”
What do readers think? Am I over-reacting? I’d be especially interested in anyone with insight into this field – is this information of any conceivable use in the fight against the next flu pandemic? Best of all would be if the authors, or anyone else involved in the reviewing the paper or the original research application, chipped in below the line to convince me and, I suspect, many readers, that this is not some colossal, hubristic mistake.
You can download the article for free, it appears, here.