Scientists have recreated the deadly 1918 flu virus. Why?

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With all the controversy surrounding gain-of-function research and all the concerns about how dangerous it is, you’d think scientists had stopped doing that kind of work.

Well, no.

In the latest news, a team of scientists from Canada and the US report they have recreated the 1918 influenza virus and used it to infect macaques. Let’s be clear here: the 1918 flu disappeared from Earth, a long time ago. It just isn’t a threat, or at least it wasn’t, until someone figured out a way to bring it back.

Why would someone do this? I’ll get to that, but first a little background.

The 1918 flu pandemic was the worst plague since the Black Death, which struck in the mid-14th century.the century. During World War I, a new flu virus swept the planet, killing more than 50 million people. It probably infected a third of the world’s population at the time.

Since Covid-19 appeared, the 1918 flu pandemic has been frequently cited (sometimes called the Spanish flu), usually to compare or contrast it with Covid-19. Sure, Covid is bad, but at least it’s not as bad as what the world experienced in 1918.

About 20 years ago, a small team of researchers led by Jeffery Taubenberger and Ann Reid figured out how to sequence the 1918 flu genome. In a series of papers spread over six years, they described how they recovered fragments of the flu virus from human samples. that had been frozen for almost 100 years, including corpses buried in the permafrost of Siberia and Alaska. In 2005, they reported the full sequence in the journal Nature. His main discovery was that the 1918 flu had originally been an avian flu, which jumped to humans sometime before 1918.

It wasn’t long before gain-of-function researchers said “hey, why don’t we just rebuild the flu virus and see what happens?” The tools of modern genetics make it possible to reconstruct a virus from scratch, using only the sequence.

In 2007, just two years after the 1918 flu sequence was fully decoded, flu researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Tokyo and the University of Wisconsin described in an article in Nature, how he and his colleagues used the sequence to create live, infectious 1918 flu viruses. To prove that they really were flu viruses, they infected 7 macaques with them. As expected, the macaques became seriously ill, and the scientists eventually euthanized them all.

(In the know may recognize Kawaoka’s name: He and Dutch scientist Ron Fouchier are widely known for their gain-of-function research that aimed to give deadly bird flu the ability to infect mammals. I’ve called them about it.) in the past, and I have openly questioned why NIH was funding this work).

In the new paper, a team of researchers from the Public Health Agency of Canada, the University of Manitoba and the Oregon Health and Science University re-created the 1918 flu virus and infected 15 macaques. This time they used more realistic doses, and the macaques didn’t get as sick, suffering only “mild” or “moderate” illness. Perhaps macaques “are not ideal for the development and testing of new vaccines and specific therapies against pandemic influenza,” they concluded.

So let’s review: Influenza scientists have been using the sequence of a long-vanished, extremely deadly virus to reconstitute the virus and infect animals, and then watch how sick they get. (Kawaoka did it for the second time, in a study published in 2019.)

Why do they do it? All the articles give essentially the same reason: These experiments, they say, will help us develop animal models in which we can test vaccines. These same justifications have been used for decades, but flu shots haven’t gotten any better, as far as I know.

But wait a minute! Even if you accept their argument that infecting macaques and other animals with the influenza virus will help develop better vaccines, why use the 1918 influenza virus?

They don’t answer that question, because there really isn’t a good answer. The fact is that the experiments will be more relevant if they use currently circulating flu strains, because those are the strains we need vaccines against.

I imagine that the scientists doing this work really believe the arguments they make about how their work will help design better vaccines and therapeutics. But they’ve been making similar arguments for decades, and it just hasn’t turned out that way.

The 1918 flu disappeared a long time ago and it is impossible for it to return naturally. There is only one way for the 1918 flu to become a threat to human health again: through a laboratory leak. Recreating the virus in a lab makes it possible.

We are still trying to figure out if covid-19 had a natural origin or if it started as a lab leak. Even if it turns out to have a natural source, the intense discussions around the lab leak hypothesis have been helpful, because they made it clear that lab leaks do happen and should be considered a real risk.

In recognition of this risk, scientists and non-scientists alike have called for a worldwide ban on gain-of-function research. That hasn’t happened yet, though NIH has issued a carefully worded statement about the kinds of work it supports.

Most of the recent controversy over gain-of-function research has focused on research that makes viruses deadlier. I hope it is clear that recreating a deadly virus from scratch is another form of gain-of-function research, carrying equally great risks with little or no potential benefit. We should put an end to both types of work.

There is an easy way to eliminate the risk that a laboratory leak could release the 1918 influenza virus into the human population: stop recreating the virus. The 1918 flu disappeared from the natural world a long time ago, or to be more precise, it became a much milder form of the flu. The deadly form that was recently recreated in various laboratories does not exist in the wild today. Let’s keep it that way.

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