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This would make a really good movie.
November 30, 2011 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Locked up in the bowels of the medical faculty building here and accessible to only a handful of scientists lies a man-made flu virus that could change world history if it were ever set free.
posted by pashdown (89 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
What could go wrong?
posted by MtDewd at 9:54 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


After he talked to ScienceInsider yesterday, he had an appointment with an institutional press officer to chart a communication strategy.

With horse-well-before-the-cart planning like this, I completely trust them!
posted by DU at 9:55 AM on November 30, 2011 [21 favorites]


Locked up in the bowels

I see what they did there.
posted by chavenet at 9:56 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


I blame the ferrets.
posted by Floydd at 9:56 AM on November 30, 2011


I just hope I'm one of the one's leftover to fight Flagg once this thing gets out.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:56 AM on November 30, 2011 [42 favorites]


I hope this wont end up like "12 monkey's"
posted by Jaelma24 at 9:56 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Time to start stalking people named Redman, Lauder, Goldsmith, Lauter and Flagg
posted by PapaLobo at 9:56 AM on November 30, 2011 [7 favorites]


*ones
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:56 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


okay, maybe not Lauter
posted by PapaLobo at 9:57 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


I hope this wont end up like "12 monkey's"

12 Ferrets, by the sound of it.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:58 AM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


I just hope I'm one of the one's leftover to fight Flagg once this thing gets out.

Well, it could be that one that kills only women...
posted by jquinby at 9:58 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


What exactly is the significance that the virus is "man-made"? Have scientists been doing this for years now?

Please, I have the stupid virus.
posted by stroke_count at 9:59 AM on November 30, 2011


I imagined Don LaFontaine reading this post aloud.

". . . They said it could never escape. They were wrong."
posted by brain_drain at 10:02 AM on November 30, 2011 [7 favorites]


Based on past experience, some scientists have also argued that flu pandemics can only be caused by H1, H2, and H3 viruses, which have been replaced by each other in the human population every so many decades—but not by H5.

...Fouchier initially tried to make the virus more transmissible by making specific changes to its genome, using a process called reverse genetics; when that failed, he passed the virus from one ferret to another multiple times, a low-tech and time-honored method of making a pathogen adapt to a new host.

After 10 generations, the virus had become "airborne": Healthy ferrets became infected simply by being housed in a cage next to a sick one. The airborne strain had five mutations in two genes, each of which have already been found in nature, Fouchier says; just never all at once in the same strain.

Ferrets aren't humans, but in studies to date, any influenza strain that has been able to pass among ferrets has also been transmissible among humans, and vice versa, says Fouchier: "That could be different this time, but I wouldn't bet any money on it."


1. It sounds like any terrorist organization with patience and access to ferrets could replicate this from the information given in that paragraph alone.

2. It seems like the experiment added useful information to our understanding of the Avian flu and its potential to cause a pandemic.
posted by jsturgill at 10:03 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


Deep in the bowels of Installation 05 things have gotten a little out of hand. I hope you packed extra underwear.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:05 AM on November 30, 2011


jsturgill beat me to it. Why couldn't just about anyone do this?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:05 AM on November 30, 2011


I would guess that the researcher in question will now spend his grant working on coming up with a cheap and easily produced vaccine for his creation.
posted by smidgen at 10:07 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


Those stories describe how Fouchier initially tried to make the virus more transmissible by making specific changes to its genome, using a process called reverse genetics; when that failed, he passed the virus from one ferret to another multiple times, a low-tech and time-honored method of making a pathogen adapt to a new host.

Oh, good christ. He deliberately set out to create a pandemic virus that was all but impossible to develop on its own "in the wild" to prove a hare-brained crackpot theory through brute force. He made a megadeath bug just because he could, and now intends to explain how anyone with some basic equipment can do the same, using techniques he developed for the purpose. The time and money wasted on monster-making is criminal on its own. He should be sitting in a jail cell.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:07 AM on November 30, 2011 [15 favorites]


Coming up next, on Bad Idea Theater...
posted by Renoroc at 10:07 AM on November 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


Why couldn't just about anyone do this?

It requires years of research experience and a large budget to do it... the first time. Now that the research hurdles are out of the way, it's a simple process, well documented.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:09 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you'll excuse me, it's time to move to Madagascar.
posted by mark242 at 10:11 AM on November 30, 2011 [30 favorites]


This idea is so bad Mr. Skullhead would be ashamed to be associated with it.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:14 AM on November 30, 2011


Better hope you can get there before they close their port.
posted by Scientist at 10:15 AM on November 30, 2011 [9 favorites]


Clearly the solution here is to ban ferrets.
posted by xbonesgt at 10:16 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


“Good news! We made cancer airborne and contagious! You're welcome! We're science: we're all about coulda, not shoulda.” --Patton Oswalt
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 10:17 AM on November 30, 2011 [25 favorites]


I think the thing people are missing is that this could have occured naturally. The chances were low, but at least we have the ability to look for it and prepare for it or something similar.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:19 AM on November 30, 2011


Nuke. Orbit. Etc.
posted by Iridic at 10:19 AM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


So apparently there were two more or less identical studies, one done at the University of Wisconsin, Madison?
posted by peacheater at 10:22 AM on November 30, 2011


M-O-O-N spells "we're fucked"?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:23 AM on November 30, 2011 [15 favorites]


This would make a really good movie.

Nah, the book was better.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:23 AM on November 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


If this was a story about how hackers found a security hole in software and released their how-to information, the Blue would be all for their work.

There are tons of virologists in this world working on all kinds of problems and most have the common sense not to create a super bug just to prove a sociological point regarding the coming plague.

In fact, instead they write books like The Coming Plauge.

I suggest reading it and supporting science writing in journalism such as that of the author instead of working hard to create new strains of disease. Why on earth couldn't they create a vector model instead of an actual virus that makes creatures ill? This feels sloppy.
posted by Muddler at 10:25 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


Now put some friggin' laser beams on it.
posted by three blind mice at 10:27 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


If this was a story about how hackers found a security hole in software and released their how-to information, the Blue would be all for their work.

Do you have an anti-superflu patch I can download and install in my body?
posted by aaronetc at 10:29 AM on November 30, 2011 [11 favorites]


Stories like this make me wonder why there aren't grownups in the room.

RESEARCHER: So, I've been thinking about my next project.
GROWNUP: Go on...
RESEARCHER: I'd like to see if I can create an airborne variant of H5N1.
GROWNUP: *slaps researcher smartly across the mouth*
RESEARCHER: Yes, thank you. I needed that.
posted by DWRoelands at 10:30 AM on November 30, 2011 [31 favorites]


I would guess that the researcher in question will now spend his grant working on coming up with a cheap and easily produced vaccine for his creation.

Well, really, that's not going to get him admitted to the Evil League of Evil, now is it?
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:30 AM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


If this was a story about how hackers found a security hole in software and released their how-to information, the Blue would be all for their work.

Not if they created a zero-day exploit tool and never bothered to work with the vendor or large-scale users on a patch or workaround.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:33 AM on November 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


Nice marmot.

Aaaaaaah!
posted by A dead Quaker at 10:35 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Damn! They scooped me!

Guess I better repurpose the basement again.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:36 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Michael Crichton would be getting a thousand talking head tv show booking calls today if he were still alive.

Really not convinced that they should publish this.
posted by longdaysjourney at 10:39 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are all sorts of justifications for doing this sort of work, but I do worry a little that this was the real thought process.
posted by metaBugs at 10:39 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wait. WAIT.

They're worried about giving people a roadmap to a deadly virus, then explain that they simply ran the virus through 10 generations of ferrets?

"Oh, yeah, reverse engineering failed so we just had the virus evolve by selectively re-infecting with the most deadly or easily transmissable cases on a ferret by ferret basis. Totally un-reproducible."
posted by Slackermagee at 10:41 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nice marmot.

Aaaaaaah!
posted by A dead Quaker at 10:35 AM on November 30 [+] [!]


EpoH5N1sterical.
posted by chavenet at 10:41 AM on November 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


Kind of stupid they would publish this, right down to the floor and name of researcher. Locked up overseas college is one thing, Fort Detrick is another.
posted by timsteil at 10:42 AM on November 30, 2011


This is not surprising. The mutations that they're talking about here are primarily in the viral glycoprotein (HA - the "H" in H1N1) that is responsible for binding to the receptor (in this case, sialic acid) on the surface of host cells. This glycoprotein is also responsible for fusing the viral membrane to the host membrane, allowing the viral genome to enter the cell and start replicating. Mutations that modify the binding characteristics of influenza HA are extremely well documented in the literature already. Anyone can find these mutations using Google Scholar. A 2 second search of Google Scholar pulls up this article, from Nature. The abstract alone, which is free, tells you which two residues in the HA protein need to be mutated to allow the bird flu virus to infect human cells. If you have any kind of institutional access to Nature, the actual specific mutations are listed in the very next paragraph. And if you don't, you can purchase the article for very little money.

This knowledge is already out there. I work in a lab that studies influenza, so I realize that I'm in a little better position to find this information, but this is how science works. Yes, there is the possibility that a terrorist group could use this information to create a lethal virus, but this specific study does not dramatically increase the risk of that happening (the 24hr, ZOMG, reactionary news cycle on the other hand...). All of the institutional barriers to making this virus are still there. For the past 20 years, it's been trivially easy to make whatever mutations in the genome of the virus that you want to and to go from DNA to infective virus. That has not been changed by this study, nor has there been any additional technical development that makes it simpler to do. A high school student of average intelligence could walk into any modern virology lab and be taught how to do this. The only barriers to it are the cost of setting up the lab in the first place.

I'm not trying minimize the danger of influenza. This virus has the potential to be even scarier than it already is. I see that people are immediately thinking of Stephen King's The Stand. For being written in 1978, it is extraordinarily prescient in its descriptions of how an influenza strain could be developed and how easily it could spread.

I guess my conclusion to this somewhat rambling post is this: the answer to this problem is not "Stop all the research!" The knowledge is out there and it has been for years. The answer to this problem is "More research!" My lab is currently working on in vitro VLP (virus-like particle) production for the purposes of vaccine production. The current standard of growing virus in chicken eggs for subsequent vaccine production is incredibly slow and inefficient. Given how large a public health issue influenza is, we desperately need to get better at both drug development and vaccine production. And both those research avenues would be completely hamstrung if research like this was squashed or suppressed. There are a lot of parallels between this and hacker conventions. It's reasonable to be cautious in timing the release of information pertaining to software vulnerabilities, but ultimately everyone is safer and better off if those vulnerabilities are identified, explored, and then patched.
posted by Osrinith at 10:42 AM on November 30, 2011 [65 favorites]


We have all kinds of awful things in captivity. Ebola, Marburg, smallpox. I'd far rather those thing existed in labs where they're being studied to figure out how to deal with them and/or other diseases, than out among the public.

But the thing about the flu, to me, is this: The flu is not that dangerous to generally healthy adults who are able to take reasonable hygienic precautions and have access to medical care. The disastrous part of the flu pandemics is that we do not live in a world where people in even the United States have reliable enough access to health care and education about how to respond to deal with it, much less in less-developed countries. We don't have the providers available, we don't have an effective way of providing care at all to the poor, even the middle-class are generally clueless. I went through a period with a relatively mild case of bronchitis where I felt mostly fine and I still had several friends who insisted that I should have gone to the ER for nearly every coughing fit.

Come the superflu, if civilization collapses, at least in the US, it will be because people couldn't take a week off their pointless office jobs and so spread it around, and the hospitals were clogged up with the uninsured and the hypochondriacs. Not because of some movie plot where researchers in biosafety 3+ situations somehow manage to bungle absolutely everything to release the disease on the unsuspecting public, leaving a bunch of plucky refugees to rebuild the world.
posted by gracedissolved at 10:45 AM on November 30, 2011 [7 favorites]


Somehow I'm reminded of this blog post from hardware hacker extraordinaire Bunnie.
posted by ymgve at 10:45 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


1. It sounds like any terrorist organization with patience and access to ferrets could replicate this from the information given in that paragraph alone.

My fellow Americans, I have just been briefed by the CIA that Iran is seeking to obtain black market "yellow-cake" ferrets...
posted by nathancaswell at 10:48 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


You guys really think that terrorism or stringently controlled scientific studies are our biggest worries with H5N1? These guys were smart enough to maintain meaningful barriers between themselves and the ferrets, but mostly they would have been smart enough to make for damn sure than any potential human infection never evolved past an index case.

I'll tell you what you should really be afraid of, agriculture and the great revenge of the chicken or duck or goose. There is nothing that these guys were doing with ferrets that doesn't happen daily in poultry farms on a colossal scale with avian infections in the millions on three continents. They were simply paying attention to what factors allow it to happen. Make no mistake that we are breeding the next pandemic on factory farms and in the open air animal markets of Southern China.

It would not be hyperbolic to say that the horror of pandemic super-virulent flu will easily dwarf any other calamity mankind has ever yet faced, and any other that we know of save perhaps global nuclear war, but it is coming anyway whether we like it or not. I don't know about you, but I'm glad there are people studying what would allow flu to be both super-virulent and contagious as it passes through species. Just maybe we will understand enough of how the next pandemic will work to stop it before it happens.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:50 AM on November 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


It requires years of research experience and a large budget to do it... the first time. Now that the research hurdles are out of the way, it's a simple process, well documented.

The article appears to condridict you:

"...he passed the virus from one ferret to another multiple times, a low-tech and time-honored method of making a pathogen adapt to a new host. "

Sounds like all they really need is access to some ferrets (or I'd think the same technique would work with people), a starter virus, and time.

I'd rather we figure out how this stuff works, how to detect it, how to treat it, etc now than wait to be blindsided. There are plenty of people who are up to no good that have access to smart people too.
posted by VTX at 11:01 AM on November 30, 2011


Somewhere in a cave, the ideological progeny of Osama bin Laden is sneezing on a ferret.
posted by darkstar at 11:10 AM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


I probably got the swine flu in September 2009, right as it was peaking in the Pacific Northwest. I say probably because when I called the doctor's office, they told me to by no means come in or have any physical contact with anyone (except paramedics if I ended up calling 911), so I wasn't able to get an actual diagnosis. I ended up holed up in my apartment for several days, barely able to move off the couch (and was fortunate enough to be able to take time off of work). I got over it, but I can totally understand how it could be deadly to immunocompromised or otherwise weakened people. I don't think I've ever been sicker than that week, and knowing that there's an even more effective strain out there scares the crap out of me.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 11:10 AM on November 30, 2011


I'm with Osrinith on this one. I think it's fascinating that we were able to build a virus capable of a terrible epidemic; now that the virus exists, we can study treatment methods so that when a pandemic starts, we have something to build from. I think it's foolish to say "We can't study diseases because what if the wrong person gets the disease?"

I know that germ warfare is a thing, but there seem to be very few people who are hell-bent on infecting a population with a deadly virus. How many epidemics have been intentionally started by a misanthropic researcher or rogue scientist?

So, it could happen, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't study the virus and see what it looks like outside of a molecular model.
posted by Turkey Glue at 11:11 AM on November 30, 2011


The flu is not that dangerous to generally healthy adults who are able to take reasonable hygienic precautions and have access to medical care.

The 1918 flu killed people in the prime of life.

One of the great unsolved mysteries surrounding the 1918 pandemic is why it tended to kill the young and healthy. Unlike yearly influenza epidemics, in which death rates are highest among infants, the elderly and those with chronic health conditions, the 1918 influenza pandemic took its greatest toll on healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40. One possible explanation, supported by recent studies in mice with a reconstructed version of the 1918 virus, is that an over-responsive immune system may release a “cytokine storm,” or excessive amount of immune system proteins that trigger inflammation and harm the patient in the process. Of note, most deaths among humans infected with the H5N1 avian influenza virus have occurred in individuals under the age of 40. However, as the authors point out, it is not yet known whether there is a higher percentage of young people in the affected populations compared to older people, whether younger people are more susceptible to infection or whether they have more exposure to infected birds.

posted by longdaysjourney at 11:21 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Oh, good christ. He deliberately set out to create a pandemic virus that was all but impossible to develop on its own "in the wild" to prove a hare-brained crackpot theory through brute force. He made a megadeath bug just because he could, and now intends to explain how anyone with some basic equipment can do the same, using techniques he developed for the purpose. The time and money wasted on monster-making is criminal on its own. He should be sitting in a jail cell."

This is absolutely incorrect both in tone and content. It looks like the researchers didn't do anything that doesn't happen on a daily basis in animals under the homes of many people in the developing world, or on a much more epic, if more hermetic, scale in factory farms. The flu evolves fast and doesn't need someone in a laboratory to mix and match its pieces. There really isn't anything we can do to the flu that nature can't do better. That isn't to say that mass epidemics can't be designed by man, we've been doing that since 1911, but agricultural poultry and pork combined with migratory birds are so much scarier than any laboratory could be; even if were were trying.

I just hope that we end up being wise enough to give these guys more funding, not jail sentences.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:31 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


The flu is not that dangerous to generally healthy adults who are able to take reasonable hygienic precautions and have access to medical care.

I hate this belief. I forget the show, but this woman had a kid that died in his teens from the flu, and she kept saying "But it was only the flu! not a real or dangerous thing!" I wanted to smack her hard, mostly because even back then i knew about the 1918 one, and if you can say you "only" got the flu, you are lucky. (side note, when i was a kid, i got a bad one, got over 104 and started hallucinating. good times)

I would also like to point out that this is childs play compared to military research with biological agents. Don't also pretend that the disease cares one whit if "the good guys" are the ones working on it. Also, one of the reasons a lot of these originate in China is due to the large amounts of animals raised for food in poor conditions around a lot of humans. Basically, it's this experiment, carried out in the wild.
posted by usagizero at 11:39 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


The flu is not that dangerous to generally healthy adults who are able to take reasonable hygienic precautions and have access to medical care.

Yeah, except Cytokine storms.
It is believed that cytokine storms were responsible for many of the deaths during the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed a disproportionate number of young adults.[1] In this case, a healthy immune system may have been a liability rather than an asset. Preliminary research results from Hong Kong also indicated this as the probable reason for many deaths during the SARS epidemic in 2003.[8] Human deaths from the bird flu H5N1 usually involve cytokine storms as well.[9] Recent reports of high mortality among healthy young adults in the 2009 swine flu outbreak has led to speculation that cytokine storms could be responsible for these deaths.[10] However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have indicated that symptoms reported from this strain so far are similar to those of normal seasonal flu,[11] with the CDC stating that there is "insufficient information to date about clinical complications of this variant of swine-origin influenza A (H1N1) virus infection."[11]
posted by mullingitover at 11:50 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


To the people who are downplaying the scare factor on "its all available online anyhow" grounds...

If they had left it at "We couldn't reverse engineer the virus but managed a work around" then yes, you would be correct in claiming that the cost of a lab is the great barrier to making a deadly (or a series of deadly) flu/chickenpox/rhinovirus strains.

But they didn't leave it at that. They went and said, "Oh, by the way, you can just throw this through ten generations of ferrets and select for the best (most transmissable) cases."
A lab might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to establish in a University life science building. A breeding pair of ferrets and the willingness to contract influenza or shingles (god forbid anyone manages to make the common cold lethal to the common man) to further their bat-shit-crazy cause is significantly less.

Yes, they lack the means of serotyping and figuring out which ferrets are harboring which mutations... but that's not their goal. Their goal would be to make something that's fucking terrifying. If you have 12 ferrets in 12 cages, infect one, and see all twelve die seven days later... you'd know you have a 'winner', sequenced genome or no.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:51 AM on November 30, 2011


For me, it's not about the development of the bug itself; that's old hat, if scary. It's the "and all I needed were a bunch of ferrets and basic equipment!" Sweet merciful crap, that's scary.

If it takes a kickass lab to design a superbug, I'm not worried about containment. If it takes two assholes with moderate knowledge and a garage full of ferrets, then I'm fucking worried.

For those with a background in virology: when the scientist described the process as "easy," does that mean a reasonably bright person could probably pull it off, or rather that it's easy for a Ph.D. in virology to pull off? The latter, right? Right? RIGHT?
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 11:58 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Slackermage: Why stop at 12 ferrets? Why don't put a frequently rotated population of ten thousand birds in cages in a warehouse, wait for them to get infected, then send them to random markets in the area and see if someone gets infected? You could even sell the eggs and the meat!

Ferrets may give you better odds to get a virus that can infect people, but by using hundreds of thousands of birds and throwing in some pigs will give you pretty good odds.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 12:00 PM on November 30, 2011


Are there any documented cases of influenza-like viruses being considered for terrorism? That would have to be one of the dumbest ideas for a targeted attack. There is no containing the flu, especially in the age of air travel. Once it gets loose, it goes everywhere; that's why it's called a pandemic.

Maybe a doomsday cult might want something like this, but I can't see them getting their act together long enough to herd ferrets.
posted by pjenks at 12:00 PM on November 30, 2011


But they didn't leave it at that. They went and said, "Oh, by the way, you can just throw this through ten generations of ferrets and select for the best (most transmissable) cases."

Maybe I'm missing something, but shouldn't this be blindling obvious to anyone with a high school knowledge of genetics? It's not exactly equivalent to selecting a fly with obcenely long wings, but it's only one step removed.
posted by muddgirl at 12:02 PM on November 30, 2011


Ayn Rand and God: Your idea of "ten thousand birds in a cage" sent to random markets is basically the current situation in south-east Asia and a few other places like Egypt (see any weekly report since 2005 from the Promed listserv). The point is that, so far, the human cases of H5N1 have only been contracted directly from birds. If, however, transmission of a particular H5N1 virus is possible between ferrets, then it may also be transmissible between humans (for more information, see the work of noted scholar GWB).
posted by pjenks at 12:09 PM on November 30, 2011


oops, sorry Ayn Rand and God, meant Slackermage
posted by pjenks at 12:11 PM on November 30, 2011


Muddgirl: yes, it is very easy to find out this information. I know 18 kids who interned in labs who could do this.

One time trying to get a pure culture from wild mushroom spores I got an Aspergillus flavus infection. By accident I got one of the most powerful know toxins, one which has been used for assassination. I burned that thing with a blowtorch.

It is not lack of access to knowledge that is preventing terrorism.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 12:13 PM on November 30, 2011


It looks like the researchers didn't do anything that doesn't happen on a daily basis in animals under the homes of many people in the developing world, or on a much more epic, if more hermetic, scale in factory farms.

I'm not convinced. This experiement had nothing to do with agriculture or avian-human contagion. This was unethical and irresponsible research to make a functional superbug that deliberately targets humans, for the "scientific benefit" of discovering a way to make a flue strain lethal. He's weaponized the flue, and acts as if it's real public health research.

This isn't exploring the underlying genetic factors that allow viruses to evolve into airborne pathogens... this is pure monster-making. He abandoned his studies of modern genetic science, and went for a killer bug using old-hat techniques. There's no breakthrough here, nothing that can be demonstrated as a way to prevent disease. It's unethical research, and therefore fraud science.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:14 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


for the "scientific benefit" of discovering a way to make a flue strain lethal

There's no breakthrough here, nothing that can be demonstrated as a way to prevent disease.

These two statements seem contradictory. To understand how to prevent the natural development of lethal strains of the flu, don't we have to understand how flu strains become lethal? That seems to be exactly what occured here.
posted by muddgirl at 12:18 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


It is absolutely unethical to conduct this research in a lab that is not at biosafety level 4.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 12:23 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I could definitely be wrong about this but it seems like the major reason that terrorists don't create and use a superflu virus is because it would be so uncontrollable. Right? I mean it seems like there would be a really good chance that some of the terrorists themselves would end up getting infected and dying. I mean, I know there are suicide bombers so maybe they wouldn't care about themselves. But there's also a good chance their families or friends or if nothing else the leaders of their group would die in the pandemic.
posted by overglow at 12:26 PM on November 30, 2011


Fouchier's study was greenlighted in advance by the Dutch Commission on Genetic Modification (COGEM), but that only means the panel is satisfied with safety procedures at Fouchier's lab
posted by muddgirl at 12:29 PM on November 30, 2011


After reading a comment on /. about this, I was going to work up a post about this and the publication in the 80s about a genetically engineered super-lethal version of mousepox (A later interview in Nature with the primary researchers).

(Basically the genie is so out of the bottle that it's in a retirement home, IMO)
posted by MikeKD at 12:30 PM on November 30, 2011


Strong evidence that several terrorist organizations (particularly the religious variety) are not rational actors and could care less about self-infecting aside, do not discount the lone-wolf types who think the world is a tad overpopulated.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 12:31 PM on November 30, 2011


To the many above comments, I know that this is something you can do with a basic biological education. Would you, or anyone else with a basic education for that matter, have made the in-hindsight-intuitive-leap from fruit fly breeding to selective propogation of a winning influenza strain in ferrets?

It might have been possible to get there but I see it as a bit of a bridge of asses situation.
posted by Slackermagee at 12:37 PM on November 30, 2011


TheGoldenOne, good point about lone-wolves... It's definitely easier for me to imagine someone like the Unabomber releasing a superflu than an organization.

Would you mind saying more about the evidence you mentioned? I'm specifically wondering if there are any historical examples of terrorist organizations using tactics that they knew could hurt not just themselves but physically distant people they cared about.
posted by overglow at 12:39 PM on November 30, 2011


Would it be politically incorrect of me to observe that the herd needs culling?

(... I fear that, sooner or later, it will be culled as a reading of history suggests that such is an inescapable reality, and I'd rather take my chances with a disease than with a war.)

(Sorry to be a downer.)
posted by cool breeze at 12:43 PM on November 30, 2011


"But they didn't leave it at that. They went and said, "Oh, by the way, you can just throw this through ten generations of ferrets and select for the best (most transmissable) cases.""

This is science that is more than a hundred years old.

In 1911 Felix D'Herelle traveled to Argentina as a microbiologist hired to address the locust problems there. The problem was massive, every other year locusts would create the modern equivalent of billions of dollars worth of damage to cash crops and generate famine on the extraordinarily fertile pampas. It was so bad, and Argentina was rich enough then, that plans were being drawn up to import most of the worlds silver to build massively long 4 meter high walls across the pampas to stop the plagues. Apparently they'd have done it if they thought they could stop theft, but the Ministry of Agricultural Defense had grown to a 3,000 member strong bureaucracy dedicated to extraordinary campaigns to defeat them. D'Herelle's idea was to spread diseases of the locust itself ahead of the swarms to take advantage of the very terrifying sale that made farmers so helpless, against the plague. He ended up getting funding to find sick locusts, cultivate the disease though serial transfer between 100 locust cages, and thus isolate 100% virulent and contagious strains of a cocobacillus. When thousands of these carcasses were spread out ahead of a swarm they were brought to a epic halt within a few days. After two years of D'herelle's efforts the plagues ceased to be the issue that they once were in Argentina and the Pasteur Institute sent out his cultures to Columbia (where several successful trials were conducted), Cyprus and Algeria where they had significant effect. (Posted previously here)

Its not like the idea that you can breed more active and specific pathogens by serial transfer in the host is new or anything, the Soviets also did it for a number of bioweapons. This aspect of the project is not news to the scientific community. I can however see how it might not be a good idea for the 24 hour news cycle or the "blogosphere" to to latch on to this information, but your beef is with dumbass journalists and bloggers, not the authors.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:47 PM on November 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


That's why I said healthy adults *with access to medical care*. Even cytokine storms have treatment opportunities. They aren't as good a survival rate as just having the flu, and just having the flu isn't as good as not having the flu at all. But cytokine storm were implicated in SARS, and the fatality rate for young adults was still low. Not zero. It would be better if it was zero. But it's not 1918 anymore. We are not in the middle of World War I and we have considerably better technology on all accounts. (A lot of the deaths in 1918 were actually from bacterial pneumonia. Do we have problems with antibiotic resistance today? Yes. Could there still be other complications? Sure. On the other hand, I would rather have it today than a decade before the advent of penicillin.)

But all that assumes that the relatively healthy adults have the ability to seek medical care and rest. Which was difficult then, and it remains difficult now. Even in that circumstance, though, it's not exactly Captain Trips territory.

Anyway, that aside: Is there some particular reason, TheGoldenOne, that you think Biosafety 3 precautions aren't sufficient here?
posted by gracedissolved at 12:51 PM on November 30, 2011


I blame the ferrets.

Previously.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:54 PM on November 30, 2011


Hey guys, I've got a sample of anthrax leprosy mu preserved in this bottle of ice-9. Anybody want it?
posted by ardgedee at 1:06 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


have made the in-hindsight-intuitive-leap from fruit fly breeding to selective propogation of a winning influenza strain in ferrets?

OK, perhaps knowing that this is a very common pathway to virulence is college-level knowledge. The point is that there's nothing particularly novel about the method used to generate this virus. The important scientific 'discovery' is that it's possible to 'weaponize' H5 viruses specifically, not that it's possible to 'weaponize' viruses in general.

And now I've blown through today's quota of scare quotes.
posted by muddgirl at 1:13 PM on November 30, 2011


The flu is not that dangerous to generally healthy adults who are able to take reasonable hygienic precautions and have access to medical care.

Ha hahahaha HA!!

Oddly enough, I'm just finishing Barry's The Great Influenza, which details more of the medical and political response to the 1918 pandemic rather than the scientific detail surrounding virus structures and influenza in particular. (Read it and garrrrr at the stupidity of our previously elected officials.) Very, VERY scary reading.

Any flu outbreak even close to the severity of the 1918 outbreak would overwhelm medical resources and result in paralyzing our infrastructures. For one thing, we have a great many more immunocompromised individuals now, for another, we are much more dependent on outside food sources, and the transport they require, and finally, our hospitals and medical personnel are vastly outnumbered and ill-prepared for a pandemic. The 1918 virus targeted young, healthy adults, just the people on whom society is most dependent. People's response then was to abandon others, even their families, out of fear at the horrific nature of the disease. We're not any braver now than they were then and even less prepared to care for the ill, with our reliance on doctors and medical technology to do what they did then as a commonplace.

RNA virus mutates at an extremely rapid rate, and the big fear is that a mild virus could easily mutate in a period of months to become a killer, sweeping through populations like wildfire. Many, if not most of the people who died did so from the cytokine storm cited above, or a particularly sever pneumonia. Apparently healthy adults could appear fine in the morning and be dead by nightfall. The book mentioned above details the horrific nature and results of the disease, and reiterates the statement: It was just influenza.

Don't underestimate the flu.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:14 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


agh!
severe pneumonia
posted by BlueHorse at 1:15 PM on November 30, 2011


"I'm not convinced. This experiement had nothing to do with agriculture or avian-human contagion. This was unethical and irresponsible research to make a functional superbug that deliberately targets humans, for the "scientific benefit" of discovering a way to make a flue strain lethal. He's weaponized the flue, and acts as if it's real public health research."

What I was saying is that the ferret model used for their experiments does nothing but mimic conditions already present around the world in irresponsibly vulnerable agricultural settings that absolutely lack the protections and supervision present in their lab. Characterizing the path to the kinds of terrifying virulence we saw in 1918 has real and vital scientific benefits. This project plainly had nothing to do with the kinds of 'Look Ma see what I can do!' motivations that folks seem to be projecting onto the authors of this study. In making this strain more dangerous for ferrets what the authors have really done, and what they are actually presenting, is the molecular changes that were made that allowed the virus to change hosts and retain its obscene virulence. This is really important because it will likely be similar kinds of changes that allow the strains of flu currently flying around the world decimating bird and mammalian populations to switch over to us. That is a big deal and is worth not minimizing.

"This isn't exploring the underlying genetic factors that allow viruses to evolve into airborne pathogens... this is pure monster-making. He abandoned his studies of modern genetic science, and went for a killer bug using old-hat techniques. There's no breakthrough here, nothing that can be demonstrated as a way to prevent disease. It's unethical research, and therefore fraud science."

As a bench scientist who uses techniques that are mostly from the 1930s, I bristle at the idea that old-school methods have no place in modern research. Since molecular methods of generating specificity and virulence didn't work, the organismal methods that have been used for over a century were exactly appropriate, hell they'd be more predictive anyway.

This research does in fact have big applications for public health, it gives us a better idea of how influenza specifically gains specificity per serial transfer. Better models of how fast this works can give us a better idea of how seriously to take different outbreaks as they happen. It also shows us the molecular mechanisms it works through. We will likely never generate an effective method for eliminating flu, vaccines work great but only for so long. However, imagine if we found some vaccine strategy or chemotherapeutic that would allow us to protect ourselves from only the crazy 1918 style of flu, that would not only be evolutionarily plausible but have incalculable implications for public health.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:21 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


For those who did not read bunnie's article, he has the following note:

[Just noticed this citation from the Nature article: Neumann, G. et al Generation of influenza A viruses entirely from cloned cDNA. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 96, 9345-9350 (1999). This paper tells you how to DIY an Influenza A. Good read.].

So yeah, nothing too new here.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 2:14 PM on November 30, 2011


cool breeze: "(... I fear that, sooner or later, it will be culled as a reading of history suggests that such is an inescapable reality, and I'd rather take my chances with a disease than with a war.)"

It's a safe bet that our current situation with fossil fuel is a Malthusian Trap, and we'll face a serious population correction via famine when we no longer have the means to manufacture huge amounts of synthetic nitrogen.
posted by mullingitover at 3:59 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's a safe bet that our current situation with fossil fuel is a Malthusian Trap, and we'll face a serious population correction via famine when we no longer have the means to manufacture huge amounts of synthetic nitrogen.


This cannot ever be said loud or often enough. QFT.
posted by Slackermagee at 5:37 PM on November 30, 2011


You people are way over-reacting.

First of all the Flu of 1918 was an anomaly. It was only able to evolve because there were already so many sick people already crammed together in hospitals from injuries due to the war. That's why a virus that was so virulent was able to evolve.

Typically a virus that is took virulent won't be able to spread well, because it will kill off it's hosts.
posted by delmoi at 8:30 PM on November 30, 2011


Lethal virus developed using ferrets... didn't they do this in Sluggy Freelance years ago?
posted by The otter lady at 9:38 PM on November 30, 2011


Typically a virus that is too virulent won't be able to spread well, because it will kill off it's hosts.

A virus that kills off its host species won't make that same mistake twice, but that doesn't mean it won't be selected for in the first place.
posted by benzenedream at 12:30 AM on December 4, 2011


Should the new flu stay secret? Or does secrecy kill?
posted by homunculus at 5:06 PM on December 20, 2011


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