Back in June, we heard of a controversial study conducted by a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers that generated an influenza virus with similar characteristics to the infamous 1918 pandemic flu virus. The research was criticized by many and branded as crazy, foolish and dangerous by experts. Now, according to The Independent, lead researcher Yoshihoro Kawaoka has gone one step further by manipulating the 2009 H1N1 flu strain so that it can evade the immune system.
The 2009 influenza A H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic is estimated to have resulted in between 151,700 and 575,400 deaths within the first year that the virus circulated. While that may pale in comparison to the 1918 pandemic “Spanish” flu virus that killed an estimated 50 million people, given the number of people exposed to the 2009 virus it is likely that a large number of individuals worldwide are now immune to this particular strain. Kawaoka, however, has reportedly deliberately produced a strain that is capable of escaping immune responses.
We are sure many of you are yelling “Why?!” right now. According to Kawaoka, the research was designed to shed light on the changes required for immune evasion in order to guide the design of new flu vaccines. To do this, the researchers selected immune escape viruses in the laboratory and successfully identified the key regions that would enable this characteristic.
“Viruses in clinical isolates have been identified that have these same changes in the [viral protein]. This shows that escape viruses emerge in nature and laboratory studies like ours have relevance to what occurs in nature,” Kawaoka told The Independent.
While further details are currently unknown, Kawaoka reportedly stated that the study is due to be submitted for publication shortly, which does not necessarily mean that it will be accepted. Aside from talks with The Independent, the only other source of information comes from members of a scientific meeting held earlier this year who have expressed concerns about the information that Kawaoka shared.
“He took the 2009 pandemic flu virus and selected out strains that were not neutralized by human antibodies. He repeated this several times until he got a real humdinger of a virus,” one of the scientists told The Independent. “He used a flu virus that is known to infect humans and then manipulated it in such a way that it would effectively leave the global population defenseless if it ever escaped from his laboratory. He’s basically got a known pandemic strain that is now resistant to vaccination.”
Of course, the research was not conducted willy nilly and it is highly unlikely that the virus will escape, but it is not impossible. This therefore begs the question of whether this research should be conducted. Is it realistically going to be of benefit to the population or contribute to the field? Flu is exceedingly hard to predict despite what we know about it, therefore the usefulness of this study is difficult to see at this stage. Just because researchers can create these viruses, it does not mean that they should. Potential risks need to be seriously weighed up against the benefits, and in this case the benefits seem hazy.