A researcher has modified the 2009 pandemic flu virus to allow it to evade the antibodies that humans have developed against it.
University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka has slightly altered the genetic makeup of the H1N1 influenza strain in order to enable it to break free of the immune system responses that humans have developed toward the virus in recent years, the London Daily Telegraph reported on Wednesday.
Kawaoka has not yet published his research but said it is ready to be submitted to a scientific journal.
“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,” the researcher wrote in an email.
Kawaoka has carried out a number of controversial studies involving flu viruses. He led a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin in reproducing nearly the entire virus that caused the deadly 1918 Spanish flu outbreak. He also conducted a study that modified the H5N1 virus to make it more easily transferrable between mammals.
The flu specialist’s most recent research was approved by Wisconsin’s Institutional Biosafety Committee. Rebecca Moritz, who is tasked with monitoring research in the state done on “select agents,” said Kawaoka’s work on the H1N1 flu strain would inform understanding about how the virus could mutate in the future, possibly making current vaccines ineffective.
“This work is not to create a new strain of influenza with pandemic potential, but [to] model the immune-pressure the virus is currently facing in our bodies to escape our defenses,” she said.
Kawaoka acknowledged the safety concerns about his research but said, “There are risks in all research. … 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].”