Will the Next Pandemic Come From a Laboratory? - Pacific Standard

Will the Next Pandemic Come From a Laboratory?

Two epidemiologists argue for the adoption of research methods that don't produce dangerous new virus strains.
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(Photo: Public Domain)

(Photo: Public Domain)

In a world full of plastic exfoliating microbeads, cyber sex toys, and buttered popcorn-flavored candy, it might come as little surprise that the next flu pandemic could be synthetic.

A new paper explains how virus researchers could reduce the dangers of unwittingly unleashing dastardly viral creations upon humanity.

Farms, slaughterhouses, animal markets, and county fairs provide viruses with evolutionary hotspots in which they can jump from one animal to another, then get down and dirty with hitherto-isolated strains of similar ilk.

The notion that scientists working to combat viruses could contribute to their deadly ascent remains a source of deep concern. And it's a concern that has only grown deeper in the wake of the deliberate synthesis of potential pandemic pathogens.

Scientists studying the zoonotic properties of germs such as these triggered controversy in 2012 when they published papers describing how they coaxed ferret viruses into potentially infecting humans. Similar work published last year created other mammalian-transmissible strains. In a new PLoS Medicine paper, two epidemiology professors remind us that there is a "quantifiable possibility" that "potential pandemic pathogens," which are being produced, sequenced, and characterized in laboratories during work such as this, "could be accidentally or deliberately released."

Marc Lipsitch, director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, and co-author Alison Galvani, of the Yale School of Public Health, say cures for these concerns already exist. But they believe alternative research methods need to be better embraced by medical researchers, research funders, and the governments that regulate them.

Lipsitch and Galvani are among those who warn that the H1N1 virus—responsible for a pandemic that killed 30 to 50 million people beginning in 1918, and then again for the swine flu outbreak of 2009—might have been condemned to the annals of epidemiological history after the 1950s, had it not been preserved by science and then possibly set free more than two decades later during an accident. Despite uncertainty over whether such an accident was actually the cause of a 1970s outbreak, the notion that scientists working to combat viruses could contribute to their deadly ascent remains a source of deep concern. And it's a concern that has only grown deeper in the wake of the deliberate synthesis of potential pandemic pathogens.

To help ease these escalating hazards, Lipsitch and Galvani compiled the following list of alternative approaches to studying the human-flu relationship, and for improving vaccines and therapies, which they included as a table in their new paper:

  • Molecular dynamical modeling of influenza proteins and interactions with inhibitors and receptors.
  • In vitro studies using single proteins of specific properties required for human adaptation.
  • In vitro studies of genetic interactions between loci in the proteins of viruses that cannot replicate.
  • Sequence database comparisons of genetic properties of viruses.
  • Sequence and in vitro phenotypic comparisons of viruses.
  • Experimental production of seasonal influenza mutants—and evaluation of the mutants using animal transmission models.
  • Studies using naturally occurring viruses.
  • Accelerating vaccine production and enhancing vaccine research.

Who needs to get on board with the idea of replacing dangerous research methods with these safer alternatives? "I believe the U.S. Government is essential," Lipsitch says. "But the list of funders of this type of work is long."

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