File this story under “rider on a pale horse“. Researchers in the US have reconstructed the Spanish Flu virus, and they’re working with it under less than maximum security conditions:
The 1918 flu virus spread across the world in three months and killed at least 40 million people. If it escaped from a lab today, the death toll could be far higher. ?The potential implications of an infected lab worker ? and spread beyond the lab ? are terrifying,? says D. A. Henderson of the University of Pittsburgh, a leading biosecurity expert.
Yet despite the danger, researchers in the US are working with reconstructed versions of the virus at less than the maximum level of containment. Many other experts are worried about the risks. ?All the virologists I have spoken to have concerns,? says Ingegerd Kallings of the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control in Stockholm, who helped set laboratory safety standards for the World Health Organization.
Work on the 1918 flu virus is not the only worry. Some experiments with bird flu have also been criticised as dangerous (New Scientist print edition, 28 February 2004).
Kallings and others are calling for international discussions to resolve the issues related to such work. ?It is time for influenza scientists to find a consensus on containment,? she says. John MacKenzie of the University of Queensland in Australia, who investigated how the SARS virus escaped from high-level containment labs in east Asia on three occasions after lab workers became infected, agrees. ?A meeting would be beneficial.?
The researchers working on the 1918 virus say their work is vital to understand what changes make flu viruses dangerous. So far five of the 1918 flu virus?s eight genes have been sequenced, using fragments retrieved from victims of the pandemic. Several teams have added one or more of these genes to modern flu viruses, or plan to ? in effect partially recreating the long-vanished pandemic virus.
The latest work was done by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His team showed that adding the 1918 gene for the surface protein haemagglutinin to modern viruses made them far deadlier to mice. The researchers also found that people born after 1918 have little or no immunity.
The team started the work at the highest level of containment, BSL-4, at Canada?s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. Then they decided the viruses were safe enough to handle at the next level down, and did the rest of the work across the border in a BSL-3Ag lab in Madison. The main difference between BSL-4 and BSL-3Ag is that precautions to ensure staff do not get infected are less stringent: while BSL-4 involves wearing fully enclosed body suits, those working at BSL-3Ag labs typically have half-suits.
?I experienced disbelief?regarding the decision to relocate the reconstructed 1918 influenza strain from a BSL-4 facility to a BSL-3 facility, based on its susceptibility to antiviral medication,? Ronald Voorhees, chief medical officer at the New Mexico Department of Health, wrote on ProMED-mail, an infectious diseases mailing list.
?We would have to do any such work at BSL-4,? says John Wood of the UK?s National Institute for Biological Standards and Control. In the US, the differing standards applied by different groups are due to the fact that experiments on engineered viruses such as the 1918 flu are approved on a case-by-case basis by Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs), composed of local scientists and officials. Critics say these are free to interpret the official guidelines in a way that suits them.
?There is no effective national system to ensure consistency, responsibility and good judgement in such research,? says Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project, a biosecurity pressure group in Austin, Texas. In a review of IBCs published this month, he found that many would not provide minutes of recent meetings as required by law.
He says the IBC that approved the planned 1918 flu study at the University of Washington considered only one scenario that could result in workers being exposed to airborne virus ? the dropping of samples. Its solution: lab workers ?will be trained to stop breathing?.
Trained to stop breathing.
Actually, if the virus gets loose, they may do that soon enough anyway.