1 July 2014
Exclusive: Controversial US scientist creates deadly new flu strain for pandemic research
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/scien ... 77088.html
Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has genetically manipulated the 2009 strain of pandemic flu in order for it to “escape” the control of the immune system’s neutralising antibodies, effectively making the human population defenceless against its reemergence.
Most of the world today has developed some level of immunity to the 2009 pandemic flu virus, which means that it can now be treated as less dangerous “seasonal flu”. However, The Independent understands that Professor Kawaoka intentionally set out to see if it was possible to convert it to a pre-pandemic state in order to analyse the genetic changes involved.
Professor Kawaoka has so far kept details of the research out of the public domain but admitted today that the work is complete and ready for submission to a scientific journal. The experiment was designed to monitor the changes to the 2009 H1N1 strain of virus that would enable it to escape immune protection in order to improve the design of vaccines, he said.
Prior to his statement to The Independent, Professor Kawaoka’s only known public mention of the study was at a closed scientific meeting earlier this year. He declined to release any printed details of his talk or his lecture slides.
Some members of the audience, however, were shocked and astonished at his latest and most audacious work on flu viruses, which follow on from his attempts to re-create the 1918 flu virus and an earlier project to increase the transmissibility of a highly lethal strain of bird flu.
“I have met Professor Kawaoka in committee and have heard his research presentations and honestly it was not re-assuring,” said Professor Tom Jeffries, a dissenting member of the 17-person biosafety committee who said he was not made aware of Kawaoka’s work on pandemic H1N1, and has reservations about his other work on flu viruses.
“What was present in the research protocols was a very brief outline or abstract of what he was actually doing…there were elements to it that bothered me,” Professor Jeffries said.
Precautions being carried out during the 2009 outbreak, in Mexico City (Getty) Precautions being carried out during the 2009 outbreak, in Mexico City (Getty)
“I’m a distinct minority on this committee in raising objections. I’m very uneasy when the work involves increasing transmissibility of what we know already to be very virulent strains,” he said.
Asked what he thought about the unpublished study involving the creation of a pandemic strain of flu deliberately designed to escape the control of the human immune system, Professor Jeffries said: “That would be a problem.”
Rebecca Moritz, who is responsible for overseeing Wisconsin’s work on “select agents” such as influenza virus, said that Professor Kawaoka’s work on 2009 H1N1 is looking at the changes to the virus that are needed for existing vaccines to become ineffective.
Professor Kawaoka said that he has presented preliminary findings of his H1N1 study to the WHO, which were “well received”.
Does he have the support of other scientists?
There is a big split within the scientific community over this kind of work. Some flu specialists support it, provided it is done under strictly regulated and controlled conditions. Others, mostly experts in infectious diseases outside the flu community, are passionately opposed to the work, claiming that the risks of an accidental (or even deliberate) release that will cause a devastating pandemic are too great to justify any practical benefits that may come out of the work.
Have there been any accidental releases from labs in the past?
Some experts cite the unexpected emergence of a new H1N1 strain of flu in 1977, which spread globally over three decades, as an early example of a flu virus being accidentally released from a lab. Genetic evidence points to it having escaped from a lab in China or the Soviet Union.
There are many examples of other infectious agents escaping from labs. Smallpox virus escaped from Birmingham Medical School in 1978 and killed a medical photographer, Janet Parker, the last person to die of smallpox. Foot and mouth virus escaped in 2007 from a veterinary lab in Surrey and in 2004 the SARS virus escaped from a high-containment lab in Beijing, infecting nine people before it was stopped.