What Recreating the Spanish Flu Really Risks: Credibility

NIAID-funded researchers at University of Wisconsin are recreating the influenza strain that caused the 1918 global influenza pandemic. Needless to say, some microbiologists think this is a fucking stupid idea (boldface mine):

“The work they are doing is absolutely crazy. The whole thing is exceedingly dangerous,” said Lord May, the former President of the Royal Society and one time chief science adviser to the UK government. “Yes, there is a danger, but it’s not arising form the viruses out there in the animals, it’s arising from the labs of grossly ambitious people.”

…On the one side are researchers who create dangerous viruses in secure labs in the hope of learning how existing strains could mutate to make them a potential threat to humans. On the other are scientists who argue the work does little or nothing to help protect people, but instead puts the global population in more danger.

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.

In an article published last month, Lipsitch argued that experiments like Kawaoka’s could unleash a catastrophic pandemic if a virus escaped or was intentionally released from a high-security laboratory….

Many of the groups that create dangerous viruses to understand their workings are funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). Lord May said he suspected the NIH supported the work because officials there were “incompetent” and believed the justifications that scientists told them. “This is work that shouldn’t be done. It’s as simple as that,” he said…

…The study identifies particular mutations that made the virus spread so easily. But that is not much use for surveillance, said Lipsitch, because there are scores of other mutations that could have the same effect. “The chance that a virus very similar to the one they study will appear in nature is extremely remote,” he said….

Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said he feared that governments and funding bodies would only take the risks seriously once an accident had happened. “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 lay-person, understood what was going on, they would say “What the F are you doing?”

At this point, a little story from my graduate school days seems appropriate. At the small technical school in New Haven I attended, there was a lab that studied Sabia virus, Brazilian Hemorrhagic Fever, which is as fun as it sounds. Here’s what happened in 1994 (boldface mine):

On August 8, 1994, a 46-year-old virologist working alone in a biosafety-level-3 laboratory used a high-speed centrifuge to clarify a harvest of infected Vero cells containing Sabiá virus. The centrifuge contained six 250-ml bottles in a rotor with an intact O-ring to seal the contents during centrifugation. Each screw-capped polycarbonate bottle contained approximately 200 ml of tissue-culture fluid. The centrifuge was run at 10,000 rpm for 10 minutes (10,200×g) at a temperature setting of 4°C. The virologist observed no indication of a problem during the centrifugation process. On opening the lid of the rotor to remove the centrifuge bottles, he noted that the outside of one bottle was wet and that fluid had leaked into the bottom of the rotor. No obvious break was identified at the time, and the virologist was wearing a surgical mask, a disposable solid-front gown, and gloves. He had no abrasions or scratches on his hands.

The virologist used a second pair of gloves during the decontamination of the rotor, but did not wear a positive air-purifying respirator, although it was available. He decontaminated the spillage by pouring a concentrated solution of sodium hypochlorite (5.25 percent) directly into the rotor bucket as well as inside and outside the bottle that had leaked. The combined bleach and liquid in the rotor were then absorbed with paper towels. After the incident, the virologist continued working alone in the laboratory for another three to four hours. All his protective garments as well as other contaminated material in the laboratory were autoclaved. Initially, he did not report the incident because he believed that no exposure to virus had occurred….

On August 16, 1994, the virologist noted myalgias, a mild headache, a stiff neck, and fever while driving home to New Haven, Connecticut, after a weekend visit to Boston. He treated himself with ibuprofen for two days before seeking medical care. On questioning, he described recrudescences of Plasmodium vivax infection that had never been treated with primaquine. He was concerned that this fever could represent a relapse of malaria. He initially did not recall any serious laboratory exposures. On physical examination he appeared mildly ill, with a temperature of 37.6°C (99.8°F), a pulse of 89 beats per minute, and a blood pressure of 130/80 mm Hg. The only remarkable features were mild conjunctival injection and shotty cervical nodes in the anterior chain. Laboratory studies performed that afternoon revealed a hematocrit of 42 percent, a white-cell count of 2600 per cubic millimeter, a platelet count of 138,000 per cubic millimeter, and an alanine aminotransferase level of 63 U per liter; urinalysis revealed moderate proteinuria (2+). After a smear proved negative for malaria, further review of possible infectious exposures led the patient to recall the August 8 laboratory incident with Sabiá virus.


139 contacts were identified, but fortunately none contracted the disease–it just doesn’t seem to transmit that well, compared to, let’s say, influenza. And Sabia virus is treatable with ribavirin. It’s also worth noting that there have been three identified human cases of Sabia virus, two of which resulted from laboratory mishaps. Yes, you did read that last sentence correctly. The lab work has been more dangerous than natural transmission. Mistakes will always be made at some point. This is a question of when (and how bad), not if.

Do I think these researchers will create an Andromeda Strain Death Virus? No. But if hundreds or thousands of people became ill due to a containment failure, never mind if there were any fatalities, it would completely undermine any credibility microbiologists have. “Trust me, I’m a microbiologist” would become a late-night comedy punchline. It would not only severely damage influenza control efforts, but also other efforts such as vaccination and antibiotic resistance containment and prevention. And for what? I’m as curious as the next biologist, but the gains seem minimal compared to the potential costs. Public health initiatives are hard enough without being seen as ‘mad scientists’ (or Mad Biologists). The costs of a loss of credibility are too great a risk: just consider polio vaccination efforts in Pakistan after the CIA revealed that they pretended to be public health workers so as to gather intelligence on Bin Laden.

This is arrogant and smacks of hubris. I just hope these researchers understand all of the risks, not just the immediate viral ones.

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10 Responses to What Recreating the Spanish Flu Really Risks: Credibility

  1. Janice in Toronto says:

    I wonder how long it will take for the U.S. military to weaponize it?

  2. Horace Boothroyd III says:

    We always knew they don’t teach critical thinking at New Haven Community University, but here comes your proof. Some guy has a fever, well golly it must be that deadly virus that – oddly enough – did not kill him and failed to induce any of the expected symptoms. It’s amazing how effectively good lab technique prevents exposure, that’s why we do it.

    Anyway, more little piggy squealing from the hysterical ninnie brigade is only going to frighten the pinks and glorps. Well done, Mike, well done.

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  6. sciencethriller says:

    I have to agree with you. These scientists are putting glamour ahead of good sense. Invest your research resources in some other aspect of virology or epidemiology. Your point that even a “small” incident could devastate the credibility of big science–already under attack and viewed negatively by many Americans. For what?

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