Rick Bogle: Flu lab accident could leave millions dead within weeks

Rick Bogle: Flu lab accident could leave millions dead within weeks

A June 25 editorial in the journal Nature should give Madisonians pause. The editors voiced serious concern over influenza research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The editors and senior disease researchers in the U.S. and abroad are making public statements about how dangerous they believe this research is.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka studies Ebola and influenza. What has gotten scientists and informed laypeople so concerned is his re-creation and genetic manipulations of the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed an estimated 50 million people. Historian John M. Barry explains the seriousness of this virus in "The Great Influenza":

"Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of 24 weeks, and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918. Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death killed in a century; it killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years."

In scientific lingo, Kawaoka's work is termed "gain-of-function" research. Nature explains that he is trying to "increase the host range, transmissibility or virulence of viruses." In other words, Kawaoka is trying to make the most deadly disease ever encountered spread faster, more easily, and able to infect more kinds of animals. He tests his flu viruses on ferrets and monkeys. He says that the experiments are humane, but notes that the sick monkeys sometimes stay huddled and shake with their toes and hands clenched and bleed from their skin.

Nature's editorial was motivated in part by the recent news that 80 or so researchers at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, one of the most secure labs in the world, were exposed to an experimental strain of anthrax. If an accident like that can occur at the CDC, it can happen anywhere. The university says Kawaoka's lab is safe but admits "there is no such thing as zero risk." In this case, anything other than zero risk is reckless.

Kawaoka has run afoul of biosafety rules in the past. When he asked for permission to reduce the level of safety for his Ebola experiments, the NIH said he was already breaking the NIH's safety rules. There have been other problems with the university's biosafety program. In one fairly recent case it was discovered that students were creating strains of antibiotic resistant germs in direct violation of federal rules. The researcher was suspended and the university was fined. In the case of Kawaoka's 1918 Spanish flu, the results of a single misstep could be a pandemic with unprecedented mortality in a world much more highly populated and mobile. Fines and suspensions after the fact would hardly matter.

The university is circling the wagons and is claiming that it is reasonable to put its neighbors' families at grave risk. But scientists elsewhere and even a few well-informed people from the university have started speaking up in public. They are trying to warn us; we should take heed. This research places Madisonians and everyone else in the world at a completely unnecessary increased risk of death; putting a halt to this madness will probably require action by our state and local lawmakers. I hope everyone gives their representatives a call.

Rick Bogle is a Madison resident.

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