You may have seen some inflammatory news articles about recent work from Yoshihiro Kawaoka’s lab in Madison, Wisconsin that made a 1918 Spanish Flu-like virus. Like this one from the Guardian by Ian Sample. While it is certainly important to draw attention to controversial research that could impact public health, this article seems a little bit like sensationalistic fear-mongering. Luckily, the LAST paragraph addresses some of the concerns:
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.”
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Yoshihiro Kawaoka has been in the news for working on infectious viruses. The work was done in a lab with Biosafety Level 3-agriculture (BSL-3A), which is close to the highest security level (just a half step below BSL-4).
Reassuringly, the particular virus created by Kawaoka and colleagues was recognised by antibodies from people vaccinated against the modern day 2009 pandemic influenza. This suggests that if it were to escape the lab it would not be good at infecting and spreading in people as most of us already have that type of antibody as a result of being vaccinated or naturally infected since 2009.
Dr. Barclay also makes sure to highlight that this is not the work of some independent mad-scientist. All of the work being done had to be justified and approved by NIH, including proper precautionary measures taken for the research.
This type of knowledge forms part of the risk assessment that scientists perform before they begin this type of work and which is updated as the experiment proceeds.
She also explains why work like this is crucial for public health.
If we want to understand how to deal with viruses that are both highly virulent and transmissible, we need to have such a virus to work with. This should be done by experts under very highly contained conditions such as those used in Wisconsin in the Kawaoka labs.
Lastly, she acknowledges that although the experiments were justified, were beneficial, and were not a huge risk to public health, that informed debate about this type of research is necessary and should guide what type of research is done.
Nonetheless, scientists do not have a licence to create at will any virus they dream up – each one needs to be risk assessed individually and the reasons for doing the experiment should be clear. And we should of course continue with an informed debate on where the limits of our scientific endeavours should lie not just for research with flu viruses but with other pathogens and scientific advances as well.
Thank you Wendy Barclay and the Conversation for putting out a great article that truly addresses this research with a knowledgeable level head!