Researcher Tweaks 2009 Pandemic Flu Virus to Make It More Lethal

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July 3, 2014, 9:03 a.m.

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].”

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