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Yoshihiro Kawaoka

UW-Madison flu researcher who created a new type of flu virus in his lab


"Kawaoka 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."

Wisconsin State Journal




University of

Wisconsin-Madison Scientist


New Flu Virus in Lab




June 11, 2014


by David Wahlberg 

Wisconsin State Journal

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David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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Yoshihiro Kawaoka, the UW-Madison scientist whose bird flu research sparked international controversy and a moratorium two years ago, has created another potentially deadly flu virus in his lab at University Research Park.


Kawaoka 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.


He tweaked the new virus so it spread efficiently in ferrets, an animal model for human flu.


Dissension over such work continues. Harvard and Yale researchers criticized such studies last month, saying the viruses could escape from labs and spread disease. Safer approaches could be more effective, they said.


Kawaoka, who reports on his new work Wednesday in the journal Cell Host and Microbe, said his research helps efforts to identify problematic viruses and develop drugs and vaccines against them.


"The work we do provides scientific data so there can be an informed risk assessment of viruses circulating in nature," he said in an email. "The more we learn, the better prepared we will be for the next pandemic."


His previous creation of an altered H5N1 bird flu virus, along with similar H5N1 work by Dutch researcher Ron Fouchier, prompted a year-long moratorium on the projects in 2012 and months of delay before the results were allowed to be published.


Some scientists said the viruses might not only be accidentally released from the labs but potentially replicated by terrorists.


The moratorium ended last year. Kawaoka said he resumed his H5N1 research this May, after approval by federal officials.


The research on the 1918-like virus was done during the moratorium, which covered only the altered H5N1 virus work, Kawaoka said. UW-Madison approved the 1918-like virus research, and the National Institutes of Health reviewed the new report on the findings, university officials said.


Both projects were carried out at UW-Madison's Institute for Influenza Virus Research at University Research Park on Madison's West Side.


The lab is classified as Biosafety Level 3-Agriculture, the highest biosafety level at the university and half a notch below the top level anywhere of BSL4.


In the new research, Kawaoka and his colleagues searched public databases of information on various flu viruses isolated from wild birds from 1990 to 2011.


The researchers identified eight genes nearly identical to the genes that made up the 1918 pandemic flu virus.


Using that information, they created a virus that differed from the 1918 virus by only 3 percent of the amino acids that make virus proteins.


That virus was more pathogenic in mice and ferrets than regular bird flu viruses, but it wasn't as harmful as the 1918 virus and didn't spread among ferrets.


They made various substitutions to the virus and found that just seven mutations enabled it to spread among ferrets as efficiently as the 1918 virus. The new virus didn't kill the ferrets, however, Kawaoka said.


"These viruses could evolve in nature and pose a risk to humans," he said. "In a sense, it demonstrates that influenza viruses that don't normally arouse alarm should be monitored."


Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, and Alison Galvani, an epidemiologist at Yale University, said in a paper in PLOS Medicine last month that such experiments pose "a significant risk to public health, arguably the highest level of risk posed by any biomedical research."


If 10 labs did such bird flu experiments for a decade, with similar precautions, there would be a 20 percent chance of a lab-acquired infection, which would have a 10 percent chance of spreading widely to others, they said.


Flu studies using lab dishes, computer analysis, virus components or seasonal flu viruses would be safer and "more scientifically informative and more straightforward to translate into improved public health," Lipsitch and Galvani wrote.


Kawaoka said potential pandemic viruses replicate quickly and act differently than seasonal flu, so relying on lab dishes and seasonal flu strains "can be highly misleading and, in fact, can be harmful."


The work he and Fouchier did on the altered H5N1 flu virus helped authorities realize they need to keep stockpiling H5N1 vaccines, he said.


"Thus, human populations have already benefitted from the H5N1 ferret transmission experiments," Kawaoka said.


Yoshihiro Kawaoka, professor of pathobiological sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine, talks with a group of media representatives during a tour of the Influenza Research Institute (IRI) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Feb. 2, 2015.


The high-security research facility was closed down for annual decontamination, cleaning and maintenance.







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