A huge controversy was stirring through the academic ranks a couple of years ago. Two research teams had taken it upon themselves to try to protect the world from another pandemic like the 1918 “Spanish flu” by basically creating the strain again in their laboratories using genetic engineering methods.
Naturally, people freaked out.
There are so many Hollywood portrayals of scientific experiments escaping into the world that people immediately saw the potential dangers. The question that remained was whether or not those potential dangers are worth the risk to figure out how to stop another Spanish flu before it even starts.
After months of debate, researchers around the world concluded that the safety features in place at these two institutions were stringent enough to allow the flu research to continue. One of these laboratories is located at the University of Wisconsin, and they recently published one of their first papers from their research.
In a recent study published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, an international team of researchers led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin has shown that all of the ingredients for another flu pandemic are already out there swirling around in nature.
The team took the 1918 Spanish flu virus and reverse engineered it to determine what mutations would be required for modern flu strains to acquire similarly deadly characteristics. The resulting virus differed from its famous ancestor by only three percent of the amino acids that make the virus proteins. What’s more, the researchers identified seven mutations in three viral genes that accounted for this genetic similarity.
Then, by scouring databases of flu found out naturally in the world in birds, they determined that all seven of these mutations are already out in the world. True, the chances of them all accumulating into one super virus is slim—but it’s out there.
But there was a lot of good news, too.
First, the new virus was nowhere near as transmissible as the Spanish flu. It could not transmit between ferrets by means of respiratory droplets—the primary mode of flu transmission—and it wasn’t nearly as deadly. Also, they found that the virus was susceptible to existing vaccines and antiviral medications.
“The point of the study was to assess the risk of avian viruses currently circulating in nature,” explains Kawaoka, who, in addition to his appointment as a professor in the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, holds a faculty position at the University of Tokyo. “We found genes in avian influenza viruses quite closely related to the 1918 virus and, to evaluate the pandemic potential should such a 1918-like avian virus emerge, identified changes that enabled it to transmit in ferrets.
“With each study, we learn more about the key features that enable an avian influenza virus to adapt to mammals and become transmissible,” says Kawaoka. “Eventually, we hope to be able to reliably identify viruses with significant pandemic potential so we can focus preparedness efforts appropriately.”
It might be dangerous to be creating viruses like this in the laboratory, for fear of it escaping. But the more we know about what makes the flu deadly to humans, the better equipped we’ll be to spot concerning mutations early and quickly create vaccines.
So which is more dangerous, creating viruses in a tightly secured laboratory or ignorance? Personally, I’ll take almost anything over ignorance every time.
The study, “Circulating Avian Influenza Viruses Closely Related to the 1918 Virus Have Pandemic Potential,” was published by Kawaoka and a whole host of collaborators that I’m too lazy to list out. That’s why the link is there.