[Paleopsych] Experts fear escape of 1918 flu from lab

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Experts fear escape of 1918 flu from lab | New Scientist 
                10:33 21 October 04

    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

        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

      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."

                               Gene sequencing

     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.

     Kawaoka told New Scientist that the decision to move down to BSL-3Ag
    was taken only after experiments at BSL-4 showed that giving mice the
    antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu) in advance prevented them getting
     sick. This means, he says, that if all lab workers take oseltamivir
                        "they cannot become infected".

                            Contradictory results

       Yet this assumes that the mouse results apply to humans. And the
      findings have not been published. In similar experiments, Terrence
     Tumpey's team at the US Department of Agriculture's poultry research
     lab in Athens, Georgia, got quite different results: they found that
      mice given oseltamivir still got sick and 1 in 10 died. It is not
                    clear why Kawaoka's mice fared better.

       What is more, all the safety precautions are aimed at preventing
     escape, not dealing with it should it occur. If any of Kawaoka's lab
      workers are exposed to the virus despite all the precautions, and
    become infected despite taking oseltamivir, the consequences could be

      "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.

    Yet Kawaoka's decision does comply with the US National Institutes of
     Health guidelines for BSL-3 agents: those causing "serious or lethal
    human disease for which preventive or therapeutic interventions may be
        [its italics] available". In fact, he is considered unusually
     cautious. "Kawaoka should be applauded for using BSL-4 at all," says
     Richard Webby, a flu researcher at St Jude's Children's Hospital in
                             Memphis, Tennessee.

                               Exposing monkeys

        By contrast, the team in Georgia, the first to experiment with
      genetically engineered 1918 viruses, did all its work at BSL-3Ag.
    Meanwhile, Michael Katze at the University of Washington at Seattle is
    planning to expose monkeys to aerosols of 1918-type viruses at BSL-3,
      a step down from BSL-3Ag. The recent SARS escapes were from BSL-3

     "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

        "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

                                          Debora MacKenzie
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