Scientists have recreated a nearly exact replicate of the deadly flu virus that killed an estimated 50 million in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. But don’t worry, they say it’s totally safe.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reverse engineered an influenza virus from a similar one found in birds, combining several strains to create one that is nearly identical to the one that caused the 1918 outbreak. They then mutated the genes to make it airborne, and to study how it spreads between animals.
“Our research indicates the risks inherent in circulating avian influenza viruses,” Yoshihiro Kawaoka, the scientist who led the research team, told VICE News. “Continued surveillance of avian influenza viruses — and not only viruses that we know pose risks for humans, such as H5N1 and H7N9 influenza viruses, and attention to pandemic preparedness measures is important.”
According to the statement summarizing the project published this week, the “analyses revealed the global prevalence of avian influenza virus genes whose proteins differ only a few amino acids from the 1918 pandemic influenza virus, suggesting that 1918-like pandemic viruses may emerge in the future.”
In other words, a common avian flu virus that has been circulating in wild ducks is pretty much the exact same one that infected humans a century ago. And now is in a lab.
The research was funded by the National Institute of Health as a way to find out more about similar virus’ and their transmissibility from animals to humans. It was done in a lab that complied with full safety and security regulations, said Carole Heilman, director of the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, at National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAD), a division of NIH.
“It was an question of risk versus benefit,” Heilman told VICE News. “We determined that the risk benefit ratio was adequate if we had this type of safety regulations.”
But many scientists disagree and have condemned research that recreates virus’ such this, stating that if released accidentally, a virus could spread to humans and cause a pandemic. Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard, has criticized research such as Kawaoka’s as unnecessarily risky.
“There is a quantifiable possibility that these novel pathogens could be accidentally or deliberately released. Exacerbating the immunological vulnerability of human populations to PPPs is the potential for rapid global dissemination via ever-increasing human mobility,” Lipsitch said in a paper about experiments with transmissible virus’. “The dangers are not just hypothetical.”
Lipsitch points out that many of the H1N1 flu outbreaks that have occurred between 1977 and 2009 were a result of a lab accident.
Kawaoka disagrees, saying, “We maintain that it is better to know as much as possible about the risk posed by these viruses so we may be able to identify the risk when viruses with pandemic potential emerge, and have effective countermeasures on-hand or ready for development.”
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