Working at a lab with a relatively low level-two biosafety rating, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka has created a strain of flu that can completely escape the human immune system. The new genetically-engineered virus is based on H1N1, which killed an estimated 500,000 people just five years ago.
Most people today have a level of immunity to the H1N1 flu, which is now regarded as a relatively low threat. Kawaoka genetically manipulated H1N1 so it can "escape" our neutralising antibodies. This would make the human immune system — and population — unable to resist an outbreak.
Kawaoka wanted to convert H1N1 to its pre-pandemic state to analyse the genetic changes involved. He told the Independent that he has now finished his study and will submit his findings to a scientific journal. He also told the newspaper that his experiment was to monitor changes to the H1N1 strain that would improve vaccines:
Through selection of immune escape viruses in the laboratory under appropriate containment conditions, we were able to identify the key regions [that] would enable 2009 H1N1 viruses to escape immunity.
Viruses in clinical isolates have been identified that have these same changes in the [viral protein]. This shows that escape viruses emerge in nature and laboratory studies like ours have relevance to what occurs in nature.
We are confident our study will contribute to the field, particularly given the number of mutant viruses we generated and the sophisticated analysis applied.
There are risks in all research. However, there are ways to mitigate the risks. As for all the research on influenza viruses in my laboratory, this work is performed by experienced researchers under appropriate containment and with full review and prior approval by the [biosafety committee]
The venue for the research was the Institute for Influenza Virus Research in Madison. The institute has a level three agriculture biosafety rating, one level beneath institutes that carry out Ebola research. However, Kawaoka's work was carried out at a level two biosafety lab. The University claims there was no risk of escape from the lab. For reference, the recent Anthrax contamination scare at Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a level-three biosafety rating.