The avian flu strain H5N1, seen in gold. It has killed at least 386 people since 2003. Photograph: AP/CDC/C Goldsmith

There are a number of influenza viruses that exist in nature and are passed about by wild animals. As a virus is transmitted from animal to animal, it alters. This process creates new strains of the virus with different genetic combinations. Unfortunately,  these new combinations can be exceedingly deadly if they alter in a way that allows them to be transmissible in humans (because it is a strain that was created in wild animals and passed to humans, we may have little to no immunity to protect ourselves).   Ultimately, this process lead to one of the deadliest pandemics in human history—The 1918 “Spanish Flu.”

Heralded as “the mother of all pandemics,” in 1918, the Spanish Flu killed some 50 million people. It all started when an influenza virus that was prominent in birds (known as “avian flu”) was passed to humans. And now, scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have created an even deadlier influenza virus that is similar to the 1918 strain. This new strain, which is a very similar but distinct influenza virus, was created by mixing together a set of genes taken from viruses of wild birds that are present in the gene pool today.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka, one of the authors of the paper, states that the  influenza virus that is currently found in birds is not transmittable in humans. However, they mutated it to make transmission possible. The team added adaptive changes like the ones that are selected during virus replication in mammals, and created a virus that is transmissible and virulent in ferrets, which is the best model for human flu.The scientists reported their research in Cell Host & Microbe.

Ultimately, this new strain indicates that the 1918 Spanish flu was not a “one-off,” and that similar (and even deadlier) strains may be passed to humans in the future. Of course, that is not to say that a deadly flu is assuredly heading our way. Rather, this new knowledge proves that we are not immune to another, similar pandemic, and that we should continue to conduct further research in order to better prepare for future flu outbreaks and develop effective plans to control any such influenza pandemic.

Many people have critiqued the scientists for creating this strain. Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, said: “I am worried that this signals a growing trend to make transmissible novel viruses willy-nilly, without strong public health rationale. This is a risky activity, even in the safest labs. Scientists should not take such risks without strong evidence that the work could save lives, which this paper does not provide,” he added. Similarly, Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, stated that he believed that governments and funding bodies would not take the threat posed by this kind of research seriously until it was too late, and he added, “It’s madness, folly. It shows profound lack of respect for the collective decision-making process we’ve always shown in fighting infections. If society, the intelligent layperson, understood what was going on, they would say ‘What the F are you doing?'”

Thus, one of the primary issues is lack of global communications and regulations. When dealing with research that could be so deadly (if released unintentionally, or deliberately by malicious characters) it is important to ensure that there is a conversation and informed scientific consensus before such research takes place. That said, this is not the first time that the 1918 strain has been “resurrected.” A decade ago, the same process led to scientists creating one of the most virulent influenza strains ever studied. So although the strain that was created is new, this kind of research is not.

Carole Heilman, director of microbiology and infectious diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Niaid) in the US, justifies the research by asserting: “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.”

What do you think? Should we continue to move forward with this research? Should the global scientific community stop this research until stronger regulations can be determined and enforced? Or should researchers entirely abandon this kind of work once and for all?


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