October 21, 2004

If you think the flu vaccine shortage is a big problem ...

There may be a far bigger threat from the flu: inadequate safety procedure at laboratories that are conducting studies of especially virulent flu strains.

According to a report in New Scientist, biosecurity experts are worried that the scientists studying the flu virus are risking the escape of deadly flu strains into the general population. These include the 1918 flu virus that killed 40 million people, and which spread around the world in three months — during a time of far slower transportation and less international travel than at present.

Research on the 1918 virus apparently includes dropping 1918 flu genes into contemporary flu viruses, which effectively recreates the deadly 1918 strain. Given this, the possibility that the safety precautions used in the labs studying flu viruses are insufficient to prevent accidental infection of lab workers are even more worrying.

[Despite] the danger, researchers in the US are working with reconstructed versions of the virus at less than the maximum level of containment. Many other experts are worried about the risks. “All the virologists I have spoken to have concerns,” says Ingegerd Kallings of the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control in Stockholm, who helped set laboratory safety standards for the World Health Organization.

Work on the 1918 flu virus is not the only worry. Some experiments with bird flu have also been criticised as dangerous (New Scientist print edition, 28 February 2004)...

In the US, the differing standards applied by different groups are due to the fact that experiments on engineered viruses such as the 1918 flu are approved on a case-by-case basis by Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs), composed of local scientists and officials. Critics say these are free to interpret the official guidelines in a way that suits them.

“There is no effective national system to ensure consistency, responsibility and good judgement in such research,” says Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project, a biosecurity pressure group in Austin, Texas. In a review of IBCs published this month, he found that many would not provide minutes of recent meetings as required by law.

He says the IBC that approved the planned 1918 flu study at the University of Washington considered only one scenario that could result in workers being exposed to airborne virus – the dropping of samples. Its solution: lab workers “will be trained to stop breathing”.

(There is a lot more detail about the 1918 virus and avian virus research currently being done in the New Scientist article.)

Posted by Magpie at October 21, 2004 09:49 AM | Paranoia | Technorati links |

Scary! Thanks for the heads-up!

Posted by: Christine at October 21, 2004 12:10 PM

Didn't the UW 'dig' up some of that wonderful 1918 virus to study? I wonder if there's college credit in grave robbing?
Hey, I'm no microbiologist but virus strains aren't fine wines. They don't get better with age.
As I'm writing this, I happen to look at my bookshelf and what do I see: "The Andromeda Strain" by Michael Crichton.

Posted by: David Aquarius at October 22, 2004 12:15 AM