Wednesday, April 25, 2007

When Spin Turns Deadly

Local journalists and media have a responsibility to local citizens. They have a responsibilty to investigate and report fairly on issues that could or do affect the community. Issues involving potential risk to members of the community require particular attention, and as the potential increases, so too does their responsibility to investigate and report.

Recently, it has come to light that a scientist at UW, Madison has been involved with research on the most deadly disease yet encountered by humankind, the 1918 Spanish flu. Both daily newspapers in Madison were alerted to a possible significant risk to the community, and yet neither one seems to have followed up.

An unpublished letter to the Wisconsin State Journal regarding the 1918 Spanish flu research on the UW campus:

April 6, 2007

To the editor:

I have read conflicting reports concerning research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison with the Ebola virus and the most deadly disease yet encountered by humanity, the 1918 Spanish flu.

I’ve read that the extinct Spanish flu was revived by Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the university and subsequently tested on monkeys at a high security biosafety lab in Canada. The reconstituted virus proved to be as deadly as the original. The UW-Madison magazine On Wisconsin’s Winter 2006 cover story says that the university is building Dr. Kawaoka the most expensive lab in the world, per-square-foot, so he doesn’t have to rely on other labs.

But, I’ve also read the UW-Madison’s biosafety committee minutes that gave him permission to test these deadly viruses on monkeys and ferrets here in his current lab about eighteen months ago. Something seems amiss.

Rick Bogle

Note to editor: see http://www.madisonmonkeys.com/biosafety/11-2-05.pdf and http://www.madisonmonkeys.com/biosafety/12-7-05.pdf
A friend wrote a similar letter to the editors of On Wisconsin and recieved a letter in reply from James W. Tracy, PhD, Responsible Official, Select Agent Program, Professor and Associate Dean.

By his title, he is the UW's official overseeing all uses of agents designated by the CDC as requiring high levels of biosecurity. So, he should know what's going on at the university.

But in his letter, he states:
Your impression that Dr. Kawaoka is now or in the past has conducted experiments with the 1918 flu virus on the Madison campus is incorrect. Dr. Kawaoka has indeed worked on campus with genetic constructs, the genes critical to the pathogenic nature of the 1918 virus. These are not live, infectious agents, and therefore cannot cause influenza.
Leaving aside the issue of whether viruses are indeed ever alive, there does seem to be clear evidence that Dr. Tracy is wrong. Consider the abstract from Dr. Kawaoka's 2004 Nature article: “Enhanced virulence of influenza A viruses with the haemagglutinin of the 1918 pandemic virus”:
The 'Spanish' influenza pandemic of 1918-19 was the most devastating outbreak of infectious disease in recorded history. At least 20 million people died from their illness, which was characterized by an unusually severe and rapid clinical course. The complete sequencing of several genes of the 1918 influenza virus has made it possible to study the functions of the proteins encoded by these genes in viruses generated by reverse genetics, a technique that permits the generation of infectious viruses entirely from cloned complementary DNA. Thus, to identify properties of the 1918 pandemic influenza A strain that might be related to its extraordinary virulence, viruses were produced containing the viral haemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA) genes of the 1918 strain. The HA of this strain supports the pathogenicity of a mouse-adapted virus in this animal. Here we demonstrate that the HA of the 1918 virus confers enhanced pathogenicity in mice to recent human viruses that are otherwise non-pathogenic in this host. Moreover, these highly virulent recombinant viruses expressing the 1918 viral HA could infect the entire lung and induce high levels of macrophage-derived chemokines and cytokines, which resulted in infiltration of inflammatory cells and severe haemorrhage, hallmarks of the illness produced during the original pandemic.[emphasis added]
Consider too, the minutes of the biosaftey committee in my original letter to the Wisconsin State Journal:

November 2, 2005: http://www.madisonmonkeys.com/biosafety/11-2-05.pdf

"This amendment seeks approval to generate all eight 1918-like genes from published sequence and to reconstruct recombinate viruses containing some or all segments from this strain, and to test these strains in animals.... Virulence and pathogenicity of the 1918 strain and reassortant strains will be tested in mice, ferrets, and monkeys.... Reconstructed 1918 influenza virus is regulated as a select agent and an amendment needs to be submitted and approved by CDC before viable virus may be used here."

A decision on the protocol was tabled pending additional information from Dr. Kawaoka. The committe met again on December 7, 2005: http://www.madisonmonkeys.com/biosafety/12-7-05.pdf

"Personnel receive the annual influenza virus vaccine, which should provide some protection from the 1918 virus.... The protocol was approved."

So what did Dr. Tracy mean when he said: "These are not live, infectious agents"?

Moreover, why wouldn't local media be interested in this story given that this virus killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people in just over a year?

The extra safety precations discussed in the committee minutes seem pretty weak and suggest that disease agents have been regularly washed down the drain without prior treatment.

I'm reminded of media's sleepy acceptance of the promise that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. It might just come down to the fact that the UW is a major advertising client.

See too: Courting Cash-Tajima-ushi Risks Deadly Return to 1918.

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