Re-creation of the 1918-like flu strain in laboratory: a public health tool or hazard?

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elabbenchThe 1918 influenza pandemic indiscriminately ravaged approximately 50 million lives, of all ages and nationalities (indeed, it killed more people than all those lost to combat in WWI). The course of the pandemic was an enigma as infections targeted healthy adults instead of the usual demographic: the very young, the elderly, and the ill. After almost a century, scientists and experts continue to unravel the mysterious potency behind the 1918 strain of influenza.

Fundamental questions such as the origin of the virus and the root of its lethality are still debated today. Among the scientists addressing this subject is Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He and an international team of scientists recently published a study in the journal Cell Host & Microbe describing their re-creation of a 1918-like virus whose gene content deviates from the original strain by only 3 percent. Kawaoka and his colleagues accomplished this using reverse genetic engineering, in which surviving avian flu genes were brought together by way of molecular techniques. The resulting 1918-like virus was able to spread from animal to animal when a respiratory water droplet transmission assay was conducted a trait that would be a prerequisite for pandemic-type transmission.

The merit of this research is now stirring great controversy among scientists and laymen alike. Some critics assert that the risks of not only Kawaoka s work but also of rebuilding any life-threatening strain far outweigh the benefits. Mark Lipstich wrote earlier this year in Plos Medicine: Even by conservative estimates, if 10 labs similar to Kawaoka s performed high-risk experiments in the next 10 years, it would run nearly a 20 percent risk of resulting in at least one laboratory-acquired infection, which, in turn, may initiate a chain of transmission.

Lipstich further explains his position in a Guardian interview: I am worried that [Kawaoka's work] 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.

Amidst the critical reception Kawaoko insists isolating the genetic topography of such complex and fatal strains protects our future, should a threat such as the 1918 flu arise. Kawaoko defends his work and those collaborating with him, stressing that their laboratories are highly secure and that critics do not understand how highly regulated this work is. He further explains the purpose of his work is to: assess the risk of [the] emergence of pandemic influenza virus. In doing so, he hopes to provide valuable information for those making decisions about surveillance and pandemic preparedness.

ACSH s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan (who recalls debating a similar topic based upon a 2002 publication, The Demon in the Freezer, with the author who was concerned about weaponized smallpox) comments: Scientific research such as this should not be constrained by baseless fears of unleashing forgotten scourges. The benefit of discovering otherwise-inaccessible preventions and treatments outweigh the clearly hypothetical risk of releasing demons from an imaginary Pandora s Box of contagions. The calculations of likely disaster were crafted out of whole cloth by the alarmist author, I believe.