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Lab Made Flu Coming to a Outbreak Near You!

Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918

Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918

Forgive the alarmist title, I had to do it. Researchers have created a genetically engineered version of the flu, similar to the spanish flu that killed roughly 50 million people in 1918. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds, that is until someone sneezes and drops the vial… but what are the odds that would… umm… happen.

Truthfully there is already a war coming. If anyone remembers the swine flu outbreak a few years back, you know what I am talking about — for those of you who had it, including yours truly, you know how horrible it can be. Swine flu or H1N1 was a supercharged flu that was 95% or so genetically different from the flu we have typically seen. This lead to all sorts of fun and horrid complications from the outbreak due to the fact it was something the body had never really seen before.

Now researchers have whipped up one of their own homegrown flu virus. Have no fear, there is a good reason for it though, to prevent something worse than the swine flu from happening [again for those of you who had it, you are probably thinking, “Is there really anything worse than that?” To which I would say, you would be surprised].

H5N1 for example has infected 665 people in 15 countries, killing 392 of them, since 2003 [for those doing the math that is more than 1 in 2 people who died from it]. Or there is the H7N9 virus appeared a year ago in China, infecting more than 440 people and killing more than 122 of them.

What is worse is flu viruses are very prone to mutation and any of the various bird flus could evolve into a strain that infects people easily, causing a pandemic that could kill millions of people before it is controlled.

The problem is that these flu viruses are something that the human body has never seen before, not 95% haven’t seen, but a full 100% no clue what this virus is, in the body type response. This isn’t just something that will badly affect the old, sick, and the extremely young, this is something that will and could potentially affect everyone with equally horrifying results.

This brings us back to lab created flu viruses and why the hell we would want to create something so seemingly horrid. The nature of the flu virus and the unpredictability of mutation means that we need to be prepared.

The typical fear mongering is questions like, “What if big scary terrorists get ahold of it?!” or even “What if it escapes the lab?!” I’m more prone to the “What if someone sneezes while holding a vile and it spills” kind of guy. I really, really want to be scared, I do. But I just can’t bring myself to do that.

Call me cynical, or just plain… Loony [see what I did there?]. Right now we are sitting on enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the planet over and over again. We have global warming eliminating the polar icecaps, dramatically changing climate and weather patterns on a worldwide scale and we have people who are crazy enough to take out as many people as possible — innocent or not– if someone tries to stand up to them.

All that aside, influenza viruses have the capability of initiating a pandemic if they can be efficiently spread between humans, which let’s face it, is a bad thing. In order to deduce whether the engineered virus was highly transmissible, the team compared transmission in ferrets with the 1918 virus. They found that the new virus did not transmit among ferrets via respiratory droplets, which is how influenza viruses are predominantly spread, but the 1918 virus did.

The scientists then investigated the number of changes that would be required for this novel virus to become as transmissible as the 1918 virus. They found that a mere 7 mutations in 3 genes resulted in a virus with similar transmission efficiencies to the 1918 virus. According to Kawaoka, these data suggest that the genetic ingredients for a potentially pandemic virus exist in nature and could combine to form such a virus.

“The point of this study was to assess the risk of avian viruses currently circulating in nature,” said Yoshihiro Kawaoka, the head researcher, in a news-release.

Furthermore, studies such as this will help scientists concoct strategies to counter pandemic viruses. Another interesting finding was that sera [or a serum that contains antibodies] from individuals vaccinated against the current seasonal influenza strain reacted strongly with the new virus, which could insinuate that this vaccine offers some protection.

Of course not everyone is for this type of research– despite this being preventative instead of reactionary– an example of this is Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, who expressed concerns:

“I am worried that this signals a growing trend to make transmissible novel viruses willy-nilly, without strong public health rationale. This is 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 also argues that the chances of a virus similar to the one created in this paper emerging in nature are remote. Despite the primary objective being to understand how the flu virus mutates, not predicting what will be the next big outbreak.

Like anybody though Kawaoka defends his work and says that others underestimate the importance of studies such as this which could eventually help scientists to reliably identify viruses with pandemic capabilities.

Already a big flu lover [and why wouldn’t you be?], you probably want the full study, which you can find —here!

Watanabe, T., Zhong, G., Russell, C., Nakajima, N., Hatta, M., Hanson, A., McBride, R., Burke, D., Takahashi, K., Fukuyama, S., Tomita, Y., Maher, E., Watanabe, S., Imai, M., Neumann, G., Hasegawa, H., Paulson, J., Smith, D., & Kawaoka, Y. (2014). Circulating Avian Influenza Viruses Closely Related to the 1918 Virus Have Pandemic Potential Cell Host & Microbe, 15 (6), 692-705 DOI: 10.1016/j.chom.2014.05.006

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