The H1N1 strain of influenza killed between 150,000 and 540,000 people within the first year of its outbreak when it emerged in 2009. Since that time, most people have developed a natural immunity to the virus. However, a possible oversight in research performed during experimentation with the H1NI virus could potentially create a new strain and trigger another pandemic.
Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka, an associate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was allowed to genetically manipulate the flu strain in an environment designated with a biosafety level-2 (BSL-2). Kawaoka’s research, which ultimately involved creating a new strain of the virus that could bypass the human immune system, should have been performed in a more secure facility, according to many experts. To put biosafety levels in perspective, most physicians’ and dentists’ offices adhere to BSL-2 procedures.
Kawaoka reportedly initiated his research with the intent of converting the virus back to a pre-pandemic state to evaluate the changes in genome sequencing. Professor Kawaoka hoped his greater understanding of the H1N1 virus would contribute to the development of more effective vaccines. For the time being, the scientist has elected to keep his findings unpublished, but many detractors remain concerned at the efforts taken to undermine humanity’s only natural defense against this particular strain of influenza.
The study had to be approved by Wisconsin’s Institutional Biosafety Committee, but a small minority of the board remains critical of Kawaoka’s approach. Some members of the board were not even made aware of the details of the research until later. One member of the Biosafety Committee, Thomas Jefferies, cited the recent outbreak of anthrax bacteria at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “I think we can sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we have more control over a situation in a laboratory than we do,” Jefferies said.
Research on the H1N1 strain is being performed all over the world, but there are a growing number of concerns about the ethics behind seemingly irresponsible practices. The lab responsible for the anthrax outbreak had a BSL-3 rating, so many people are still unconvinced the university is operating under proper safety mandates. An Oxford University vaccine expert, Professor Sir Andrew McMichael, said, “It’s very disturbing and poses real risks that do not seem to be appreciated fully by those involved.” Despite his many critics, Kawaoka had the opportunity to present his findings to the World Health Organization (WHO), where he received a positive response.
While an oversight on Kawaoka’s research could lead to a new pandemic, there are others who believe the knowledge gained is worth the risks taken. Rebecca Moritz, responsible for overseeing some of the work at the institute, assured skeptics every precaution is in place. According to Moritz, work on viruses and bacteria that are difficult to transmit through the air is commonly performed in a BSL-2 laboratory. She remains adamant that Kawaoka’s study is critical to the advancement of medicine. “The work is designed…to guide the process of selecting strains used for the next vaccine,” Moritz said.
It is crucial for new vaccinations to be readily available to combat every strain of influenza because the disease evolves so rapidly. Professor Kawaoka’s research might prove to be fundamental in the creation of new vaccines, but a possible oversight in the research methods might also lead to the release of the next great pandemic.”
By Samuel Williams