Once again I have been asked a number of questions about the ethics and the practicalities of the work. The language of those condemning the research and public release of the information usually protrays the scientists as "educated idiots" and "dolts" to meddle in something as dangerous as influenza.
Such vitriol does a great disservice to the scientists, hence my vigorous defense of the field.
So, here is a brief mailbag entry from Nate:
Not saying the research should not have been done, just have issues with the apparent handling of it.
Do these universities have the needed controls and security to protect against accidental release? I know that here in the States the physical security varies incredibly.
What level of sophistication would be needed to do this type of forced mutations? Is it something that can be fired up in a community college level laboratory or a midsized state U or would it take a specialized research lab?
Is it something like nuclear weapons and most other technology? If you know it is possible to do it is much easier to reproduce?
What are the steps from where they are at to get to a useful vaccine?
How bad is this flu?
From The Independent's story: "The fear is that if you create something this deadly and it goes into a global pandemic, the mortality and cost to the world could be massive," a senior scientific adviser to the US Government told The Independent, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The worst-case scenario here is worse than anything you can imagine."
Spreading the influenza virus:
Nevertheless, 99.99% of the droplets are caught before entering the lower lungs. H5N1 enters cells in the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs. One virus entering a weaker cell can produce between 100 and 1000 copies of itself. Once the cell fills with virus particles, it dies, ruptures, and releases the virus. However, not all cells are susceptible to entry by the virus. Macrophages (immune cells) in the blood, lymph and lung tissue consume dead and dying cells, and the virus may not get a chance to spread.
Again, from The Independent: "For the first time the researchers have been able to mutate the H5N1 strain of avian influenza so that it can be transmitted easily through the air in coughs and sneezes. Until now, it was thought that H5N1 bird flu could only be transmitted between humans via very close physical contact."
The Independent: Dutch scientists carried out the controversial research to discover how easy it was to genetically mutate H5N1 into a highly infectious "airborne" strain of human flu. They believe that the knowledge gained will be vital for the development of new vaccines and drugs.
The discovery has prompted fears within the US Government that the knowledge will fall into the hands of terrorists wanting to use it as a bio-weapon of mass destruction. Some scientists are questioning whether the research should ever have been undertaken in a university laboratory, instead of at a military facility.
OK, now we get back to Nathan's question about what it takes to do this sort of mutation and virology, can it be done at community college level? Or does it take a specialized lab. Offhand I would say that this sort of work requires a dedicated virology lab. First, you need knowledge of culturing viruses, it's not easy, but can be readily learned. Performing the actual mutations, though, requires gene sequencing equipment and a means to ensure that the appropriate sequences are maintained in the virus.
Is this like making nukes? Once you know it is possible, it's easy to reproduce?
The Influenza A virus which is the root of the "H" strain viruses is highly susceptible to mutation. I mentioned this before and promised a discussion later – every time a virus enters a new host or new type of cell, it mutates. Every year we need a new seasonal flu vaccine due to the mutations from the previous year. One natural consequence is that most influenza epidemics burn themselves out because the second, third and fourth generation of the same virus has mutated to a *less* virulent form.
One blogger* wrote the following "Some dopes in a Dutch lab have made the threat a lot more real. By mutating H5N1 into a more human threat, these scientists have given would-be bio terrorists something to salivate over. They say they did it because it could help them develop more effective vaccines in the future, but to me this falls into the category of things you just shouldn't mess with, no matter how pure your intentions." [*Please note, the blogger is an IT security type, not a biologist, although I am not at all certain that should excuse his language.]
Now, should it be classified? HELL NO!
As far as making a useful vaccine – until we know a hell of a lot more about making human cells resistant to viruses – the first thing you need is the actual virus... in the form which infects humans.
Again, thanks to Nate for his insightful questions and the opportunity to answer them here. I am sorry that posting has been so irregular this fall, I will do my best to get back on a more regular schedule with the new year, and remember, you can always ask questions and I see what I can do to give reasonable, science-based answers that y'all can understand!