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.”
Depending on the degree of immunity to the infecting strain of virus and other factors, infection may range from asymptomatic to severe. Patients with underlying cardiorespiratory disease, people with immune deficiency (even that associated with pregnancy), the elderly, and smokers are more prone to have a severe case.
After an incubation period of 1 to 4 days, the “flu syndrome” begins with a brief prodrome of malaise and headache lasting a few hours. The prodrome is followed by the abrupt onset of fever, chills, severe myalgias, loss of appetite, weakness and fatigue, sore throat, and usually a nonproductive cough. The fever persists for 3 to 8 days, and unless a complication occurs, recovery is complete within 7 to 10 days. Influenza in young children (under 3 years) resembles other severe respiratory tract infections, causing bronchiolitis, croup, otitis media, vomiting, and abdominal pain, accompanied rarely by febrile convulsions (Table 1). Complications of influenza include bacterial pneumonia, myositis, and Reye syndrome. The central nervous system can also be involved. Influenza B disease is similar to influenza A disease.
Influenza may directly cause pneumonia, but it more commonly promotes a secondary bacterial superinfection that leads to bronchitis or pneumonia. The tissue damage caused by progressive influenza virus infection of alveoli can be extensive, leading to hypoxia and bilateral pneumonia. Secondary bacterial infection usually involves Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, or Staphylococcus aureus. In these infections, sputum usually is produced and becomes purulent.
Although the infection generally is limited to the lung, some strains of influenza can spread to other sites in certain people. For example, myositis (inflammation of muscle) may occur in children. Encephalopathy, although rare, may accompany an acute influenza illness and can be fatal. Postinfluenza encephalitis occurs 2 to 3 weeks after recovery from influenza. It is associated with evidence of inflammation but is rarely fatal.
Reye syndrome is an acute encephalitis that affects children and occurs after a variety of acute febrile viral infections, including varicella and influenza B and A diseases. Children given salicylates (aspirin) are at increased risk for this syndrome. In addition to encephalopathy, hepatic dysfunction is present. The mortality rate may be as high as 40%.
The diagnosis of influenza is usually based on the characteristic symptoms, the season, and the presence of the virus in the community. Laboratory methods that distinguish influenza from other respiratory viruses and identify its type and strain confirm the diagnosis (Table 2).
Influenza viruses are obtained from respiratory secretions. The virus is generally isolated in primary monkey kidney cell cultures or the Madin-Darby canine kidney cell line. Nonspecific cytopathologic effects are often difficult to distinguish but may be noted within as few as 2 days (average, 4 days). Before the cytopathologic effects develop, the addition of guinea pig erythrocytes may reveal hemadsorption (the adherence of these erythrocytes to HA-expressing infected cells). The addition of influenza virus-containing media to erythrocytes promotes the formation of a gel-like aggregate due to hemagglutination. Hemagglutination and hemadsorption are not specific to influenza viruses, however; parainfluenza and other viruses also exhibit these properties.
More rapid techniques detect and identify the influenza genome or antigens of the virus. Rapid antigen assays (less than 30 min) can detect and distinguish influenza A and B. Reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) using generic influenza primers can be used to detect and distinguish influenza A and B, and more specific primers can be used to distinguish the different strains, such as H5N1. Enzyme immunoassay or immunofluorescence can be used to detect viral antigen in exfoliated cells, respiratory secretions, or cell culture and are more sensitive assays. Immunofluorescence or inhibition of hemadsorption or hemagglutination (hemagglutination inhibition [HI]) with specific antibody can also detect and distinguish different influenza strains. Laboratory studies are primarily used for epidemiologic purposes.
To read more click on this link to the full article: Clinical Syndromes, Laboratory Diagnosis and Treatment of Orthomyxoviruses
On 2 February, scientists and public health officials squared off in a panel discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences. At stake, the fate of two papers which describe a mutant strain of the avian influenza virus H5N1. The virus is capable of mammal-to-mammal transmission, which has raised concern that it might be transferable to humans. Several panelists sat down with Nature News to discuss their positions prior to the panel discussion.
For more on the NYAS debate, visit Nature’s blog:
and see web special about the ongoing controversy over H5N1:
Or see NYAS.org where the NYAS has posted two hours of video from the H5N1 event. Now everyone can see exactly what Mike Osterholm said to Peter Palese. Highly unprofessional, in my opinion, and not conducive with a good scientific discourse. Laurie Garrett was not much better.