A team of gain-of-function scientists in Canada and the US report that they have re-created the 1918 influenza virus and used it to infect macaques.
Spanish Flu infected more than one-third of the global population and killed 50 million people just after World War I. Epidemiologists regard it as the worst plague since the Black Death in the 14th century.
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In a piece titled, “Scientists Have Re-Created The Deadly 1918 Flu Virus. Why?” Forbes contributor Steven Salzberg examines what could possibly have lead scientists to do this.
Salzberg begins by noting the controversy regarding gain-of-function research after the COVID-19 pandemic that looks more and more likely to have its origins at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, which was coincidentally conducting gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses just before the first case of COVID-19 were reported in the Wuhan area.
So why are scientists performing gain-of-function research on a long-gone and deadly flu virus that killed tens of millions of people over one hundred year ago?
“In the latest news, a team of scientists in Canada and the U.S. report that they have re-created the 1918 influenza virus and used it to infect macaques,” says Salzberg. “Let’s be clear here: the 1918 flu vanished from the Earth, long ago. It’s simply not a threat, or it least it wasn’t, until someone figured out a way to bring it back.”
Salzberg doesn’t mention this in his article, but the thing about the Spanish Flu was that it was unlike other flu viruses that are more deadly to the very young and the very old — this one had an unusually high mortality rate among young adults.
Via Clash Daily: The SARS-CoV-2 virus was also somewhat unusual in that it was very little threat to the young, but the vast majority of deaths have been in elderly patients who are already susceptible to other respiratory viruses.
Comparisons to the 1918 Flu and COVID-19 have been around since early 2020, but it was often in a comforting way — “At least it’s not the Spanish Flu!”
Were the public health officials upset that SARS-CoV-2 was “disproportionately affecting” elderly people and wanted to make sure that there was mortality “equity” among younger age groups? Someone cynical might think that, but no… it’s much worse than that. The gain-of-function scientists did it just because they could.
About 20 years ago, a small team of researchers led by Jeffery Taubenberger and Ann Reid figured out how to sequence the genome of the 1918 flu. In a series of papers spread over six years, they described how they recovered pieces of the flu virus from human samples that had been frozen for nearly 100 years, including corpses buried in the permafrost of Siberia and Alaska. In 2005, they reported the complete sequence in the journal Nature. Their main discovery was that the 1918 flu had originally been a bird flu, which jumped into humans sometime before 1918. Taubenberger and others, including Adolfo Garcia-Sastre at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, also re-constructed live viruses and tested them on mice, that same year. Not surprisingly, the mice died.
It didn’t take long before gain-of-function researchers said “hey, why don’t we reconstruct the flu virus and see what happens in primates?” The tools of modern genetics make it possible to reconstruct a virus from scratch, using just the sequence.
In 2007, only two years after the 1918 flu sequence was completely decoded, influenza researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Tokyo and the University of Wisconsin described, in a paper in Nature, how he and his colleagues used the sequence to create live, infectious 1918 flu viruses. To test them on more human-like subjects, they infected 7 macaques with them. Not surprisingly, the macaques got severely ill, and the scientists eventually euthanized all of them.
We could have had another outbreak of the Spanish Flu in 2007, and thank God, we didn’t! No thanks to these geniuses.
But the Big Brains couldn’t just leave it at that, could they?
No, they had to do it all again — you know, just to make sure that their findings were right.
In the new paper, a team of researchers at the Public Health Agency of Canada, the University of Manitoba, and Oregon Health & Science University re-created the 1918 flu virus again, and infected 15 macaques. This time they used more realistic doses, and the macaques didn’t get so sick, suffering only “mild” or “moderate” disease. Maybe macaques “are not ideal for the development and testing of novel pandemic influenza-specific vaccines and therapies,” they concluded.
So let’s review: flu scientists have been using the sequence of a long-vanished, extremely deadly virus to reconstitute the virus and infect animals, and then observe how sick they get. (Kawaoka did it a second time, in a study published in 2019.)
Why do they do it? All of the papers 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 vaccines haven’t improved one whit, as far as I can tell.
Salzberg makes the point that the stated reason for the need for gain-of-function research is always the same — to help develop vaccines.
But why create a vaccine for a strain of flu that is no longer a threat?
“The 1918 flu disappeared long ago, and there’s no way it could possibly re-appear naturally. There’s only one way that the 1918 flu becomes a threat to human health again: through a lab leak,” writes Salzberg. “Re-creating the virus in a lab makes that possible.”
There is still the question about the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and whether or not it leaked from a lab, and because of the stonewalling by China, we may never know for certain.
It seems likely that the place that was conducting bat coronavirus research and wasn’t exactly known for being particularly careful in their practices when collecting samples might have had a lab leak. And investigations into the “wet market” hasn’t found a single host animal that the virus could have jumped to humans from.
Even if it was natural in origin, the entire premise of gain-of-function seems to be to predict which viruses could spread and learn how to create vaccines for them… which increases the likelihood of an outbreak of something that could be incredibly deadly.
Salzberg makes a great point near the end of his article:
Most of the recent controversy over gain-of-function research has focused on research that makes viruses more deadly. I hope it’s clear that re-creating a deadly virus from scratch is another form of gain-of-function research, one that carries equally great risks with little or no potential benefit. We should put a halt to both types of work.
People need to tell these researchers, “Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean that you should do it.”
Stop the madness.
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