The scientific community has been abuzz with word going around about a yet-to-be released study that manipulated mutant viruses from a devastating 2009 Influenza outbreak, in order to create a pandemic strain of the virus that could dodge the human immune system.
A scientist at the University of Wisconsin known for his edgy influenza research, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, developed the H1N1 flu virus strain — also known as the swine flu — to evade immune protection, which humans tend to develop as a virus persists in nature.
In the initial report about the study on Tuesday, the Independent wrote that other scientists were “horrified” Kawaoka had intentionally revoked the immune system’s defense against a virus that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in its first year on the scene.
While the thought of a deadly pandemic-causing flu virus being developed in a laboratory might conjure up Hollywood-inspired fears of an experiment gone wrong and a potential for a mass outbreak, Kawaoka’s research could actually prevent that kind of scenario.
Since its debut in 2009, the H1N1 influenza virus has circulated each year during the flu season. The vast majority of people have built up immunity, thus it is no longer a pandemic virus and is now considered a seasonal strain.
A similar transformation happened with the 1918 Spanish Influenza virus that killed an estimated 20-40 million people — more than the number that died in World War I. The turn-of-the-century strain gradually morphed into a run-of-the-mill seasonal flu, only to be made extinct upon swine flu’s arrival.
“Eventually, these changes and others will lead to the emergence of a new dominant circulating virus that no longer matches the vaccine strain,” Kawaoka told VICE news. “Typically, these lead to the selection of a new vaccine virus every three to five years.”
Kawaoka’s study, which has not yet been made public, was performed to help predict these inevitable future changes in the once-pandemic H1N1 virus that would result in the need for a new vaccine strain. His findings have been presented to the World Health Organization’s Informal Consultation for Influenza Vaccine Virus Selection, in order to help improve vaccine selection.
“We know a new vaccine will be needed in the future. Vaccine manufacturers need as much time as possible to prepare a new strain,” Kawaoka said. “The vaccine strain selection committee is under pressure to select the most ideal virus of the vaccine strain, based on the data they have from circulating strains.”
Using what is called an "antigenic drift" process that enables the virus to evade immune protection, Kawaoka said the study was conducted with proper approvals and appropriate containment practices.
Such "antigenic escape" studies have been performed routinely in virology labs for 30 years. Despite this, media outlets and scientists alike have reportedly expressed concern.
“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,” a scientist who had attended a talk given by Professor Kawaoka about his study told the Independent.
“He’s basically got a known pandemic strain that is now resistant to vaccination. Everything he did before was dangerous but this is even madder. This is the virus,” the scientist added.
But Ben Neuman, a virologist at the University of Reading, told VICE News that there is no reason to panic about this experiment and others like it.
“These viruses are fascinating, and it is certainly worth studying them and watching how they spread, but right now there is no good reason to worry,” he said.
Neuman explained that these mutations happen everyday in nature and that Kawaoka’s new strain probably even exists somewhere in the wild. Furthermore, because the changes are inevitable it’s a necessary function of science to study possible mutations, no matter how scary they might seem.
“These changes happen in the wild, and when they happen in a lab, at least we can study them. And studying things that can have a big impact on human health is a big part of why scientists are here,” he said.
With natural mutations surely on the horizon, Kawaoka said that now is the time to work towards determining the next vaccine.
“It has been five years since this virus emerged so, based on our experience with other seasonal influenza viruses, it is about time for a change to occur,” he explained. “That will result in the vaccine to the 2009 H1N1 virus no longer being efficacious.”
And if you’re concerned about a mass outbreak or the strain getting in the wrong hands, Neuman assures you that the concerns that often arise are overblown.
“People worry a lot about viral bioterrorism, but the more you study viruses, the more you realize that it would be really difficult and expensive to actually use a virus as a weapon,” he said. “There are much easier ways for terrorists to make their point, and frankly most terrorists probably didn't get to be terrorists by being really smart and doing particularly well in science class.”
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB
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