UW-Madison scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka says he’s creating potentially deadly flu viruses to help prevent a pandemic, but a campus biosafety panel member says the research could cause more harm than good because the viruses could escape from the lab.
“You’re increasing the probability of having a pandemic rather than decreasing the probability,” said Tom Jeffries, a member of the university’s Institutional Biosafety Committee, which reviews sensitive research.
Jeffries said the flu viruses Kawaoka creates in his lab at University Research Park on Madison’s West Side should be genetically modified to minimize the risk to humans. Kawaoka said doing that would undermine his studies, aimed at identifying troublesome flu viruses that could arise in nature.
“That’s potentially very scary research,” Jeffries said. “It’s potentially very hazardous. I think we should be doing everything we can to contain it.”
Jeffries’ comments, in an interview last week with the State Journal, are the first concerns known to be raised publicly by a scientist on campus about the work by Kawaoka, which has generated international controversy.
After Kawaoka reported this month that he used genes from several bird flu viruses to construct a virus similar to the 1918 pandemic flu virus that killed up to 50 million people worldwide, British and French scientists called the research “absolutely crazy” and “madness, folly.”
“The whole thing is exceedingly dangerous,” Robert May, the United Kingdom’s
former chief science adviser, told the Guardian newspaper.
“If society, the intelligent layperson, understood what was going on, they would say, ‘What the F are you doing?’ ” Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, told the Guardian.
Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, told the State Journal that Kawaoka’s concoction of a “hypothetical virus” offers few lessons to authorities trying to prevent a pandemic.
“It is a pretty long leap of faith, of little practical benefit to those who have to do the hard work of prioritizing responses to avian flu viruses,” Lipsitch said.
Similar work by Kawaoka and a Dutch scientist a few years ago produced altered H5N1 bird flu viruses and prompted concerns that the viruses could escape from the labs or be replicated by terrorists. The scientists agreed to a yearlong moratorium on the projects in 2012 and months of delay before their results were allowed to be published.
Other scientists, including Vincent Racaniello of Columbia University in New York, defend Kawaoka’s work, saying it shows how viruses circulating today could combine to cause a pandemic.
The research — involving ferrets, an animal model for human flu — helps authorities identify problematic viruses and develop drugs and vaccines against them, Kawaoka said.
“The risk is worth taking, not only because understanding transmission is fundamentally important, but also because of unanticipated results which often substantially advance the field,” Racaniello wrote in a blog post after Kawaoka’s report this month about his new 1918-like flu virus.
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Kawaoka conducts his studies at the Institute for Influenza Virus Research at University Research Park, in a lab classified as Biosafety Level 3-Agriculture, the highest biosafety level at UW-Madison and half a notch below the top level anywhere of BSL4.
“We have extensive controls in place to ensure the safety and security of Dr. Kawaoka’s inventory,” said Rebecca Moritz, the university’s program manager for select agents, germs considered to be the greatest bioterrorism threats.
Jeffries, a molecular biologist, worked at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison for more than 30 years before retiring in 2012. He is a professor emeritus at UW-Madison, where he still maintains a lab. He owns Xylome, a company developing biofuels from yeast.
Last year, he joined the 17-member biosafety committee, which has approved Kawaoka’s research.
Jeffries said committee members and campus biosafety staff “take their jobs very seriously.” He said the physical containment measures Kawaoka is required to follow, such as wearing disposable jumpsuits and showering upon leaving the lab, seem satisfactory.
But Jeffries said a lab safety problem that potentially exposed dozens of workers to anthrax at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta this month is an example of what can go wrong.
“I think we can sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we have more control over a situation in a laboratory than we do,” he said. “Accidents do happen.”
Kawaoka should genetically disarm his flu viruses so they would have little or no chance of spreading among people if they escaped from the lab, Jeffries said. A technique described in September by Benjamin tenOever of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York could block transmission of flu viruses in mice and humans but allow the viruses to continue spreading among ferrets.
Such “biological containment” would make Kawaoka’s work much safer, Jeffries said. “It would go a long way toward alleviating my concerns about this kind of research,” he said.
Kawaoka said, “The issue with disabling a highly pathogenic virus is that you are not working with authentic viruses. What you learn applies to the attenuated strains, but may not apply to the authentic viruses.”
Jeffries said he also thinks Kawaoka’s flu viruses should be destroyed after the studies are done, not stored in the lab. Kawaoka said the viruses “are valuable for follow-up studies” and the risks from storing them “have been minimized.”
Jeffries said he has voted against Kawaoka’s research proposals and raised questions about them in biosafety committee meetings. Moritz, the select agent program manager, said the committee has approved Kawaoka’s flu studies 34 times over the years and all but two of the votes were unanimous.
Most committee members work for the university, which relies heavily on grants such as those Kawaoka brings in, Jeffries said.
“You can actually get into almost an advocacy position, when in fact you should be the chief skeptic,” he said.