We can all recall the swine flu pandemic in 2009 which managed to kill over 500,000 people in just a year. Fortunately, most of us are now partially immune to said virus, and can now be treated as the normal winter flu. But this isn’t the end of the story.
Professor Kawaoka is the lead researcher at the Wisconsin University’s Institute for Influenza Virus Research, and is also known for previously re-creating the Spanish flu virus. For the last 4 years, he has been working the H1N1 virus to modify it so it can completely evade the human immune system. His mechanism was to isolate those strands of the original influenza virus that weren’t affected by our antibodies and allow them to reproduce, to create a group that, due to its viral protein content, doesn’t cause any immune response.
Now, the reason for this study is that it could have real applications, because a model of how viruses can mutate to evade our system could be used to design new and more efficient vaccines, or other methods to prevent mass infection.
The biosafety committee responsible of approving such studies is mostly in favour of Kawaoka’s investigation, but other scientists are not as happy. Through this experiment, the researcher has effectively created a virus strain that if released, could infect most of the population who would also be unarmoured to defend themselves from it. It is the first time someone has allowed a dangerous virus to be mutated over and over again to change its characteristics, so the consequences could be very grave. However, Kawaoka argues that viruses with special proteomes that can escape immune system detection already exist in nature, so the investigation is relevant to possible dangers we face by the natural world.
Another criticism is the laboratory where this research is being conducted. It now has a level-3 biosafety rating, which is still one lower than the maximum rating, reserved only for the most dangerous pathogens. Even worse, the bulk of the experiment, where the virus was handled, was carried out in a level-2 lab, increasing the risk of an accidental release of the virus.
The results haven’t been published yet, but are written and ready to go. This is another danger, because all this information could also be used for research in the fabrication of new weapons in biological warfare.
In my opinion, it is clear that scientists need more information in the viral field. We need to prepare for the unknown dangers and this can only be achieved through research, which many times involves some sort of danger. But to minimise these, we should not only focus on investigating the viruses, but also in improving the safety in our laboratories, making sure the risk of a leak is virtually zero. Furthermore, the information obtained from said research should be carefully dealt with to prevent any danger of a deliberate release to cause a pandemic.