Disease by Design: 1918 “Spanish” Flu Resurrection Creates Major Safety and Security Risks
The resurrection of 1918 influenza has plunged the world closer to a flu pandemic and to a biodefense race scarcely separable from an offensive one, according to the Sunshine Project, a biological weapons watchdog.
“There was no compelling reason to recreate the 1918 flu and plenty of good reasons not to. Instead of a dead bug, now there are live 1918 flu types in several places, with more such strains sure to come in more places,” says Sunshine Project Director Edward Hammond, “The US government has done a great misdeed by endorsing and encouraging the deliberate creation of extremely dangerous new viruses. The 1918 experiments will be replicated and adapted, and the ability to perform them will proliferate, meaning that the possibility of man-made disaster, either accidental or deliberate, has risen for the entire world.”
The 1918 experiments are part of the US biodefense program and are of no practical value in responding to outbreaks of “bird flu” (H5N1). The 1918 virus is a different type (H1N1) of influenza than “bird flu”. 1918 flu is more than eighty-five years old and no longer exists in nature, posing no natural threat. While it is reasonable to determine the genetic sequence of 1918 and other extinct influenza strains, there is no valid reason to recreate the virulent virus, as the risks far outweigh the benefits.
But the most significant story isn’t Tumpey, Taubenberger, and colleagues. It is the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) attitude about the experiments and its implications. “The biggest news about resurrecting 1918 flu is the US government’s enthusiastic embrace of designer disease and the impact that it will have on our future.” says Hammond, “By encouraging genetic riffs on influenza and other viruses with the explicit intent of building more dangerous pathogens, CDC is fuelling the gathering dangers of competition to discover the worst possibilities of biotechnology applied to bioweapons agents. Some might do it just to keep up with the Americans, resulting in a further blurring of defense and offense and heightening the biological mistrust evident in US foreign policy.”
In addition to the potentially broad damage to international security and cooperation in the biological sciences if novel diseases continue to be created, the 1918 experiments heighten the chance that a flu lab will be the source of the next pandemic.
CDC says that it plans to keep its vials of 1918 flu under close guard in one place. But that’s a red herring according to the Sunshine Project. Influenza with as many as five 1918 flu genes, and which are potentially pandemic, have already been handled at labs in at least four places other than CDC, including labs in Athens, GA, Winnipeg, MB (Canada), Seattle, WA, and Madison, WI. With the exception of the Canadian lab, none of these facilities has maximum (BSL-4) biological containment, and it is a virtual certainty that more labs will begin 1918 flu work now.
In fact, the only possible source of a new 1918 influenza outbreak is a laboratory. The situation of the 1918 flu is not dissimilar to SARS, whose natural transmission is believed to have been halted. The experience with SARS accidents is chilling: It has escaped three different labs to date. A 1918 influenza escape would be very likely to take a higher human toll. The US biodefense program has also had a number of lab accidents since 2002, including the mishandling of anthrax and plague and laboratory-acquired infections of tularemia. In Russia, a researcher contracted Ebola and died last year.
Importantly, human error and equipment failures aren’t the only ways for a disease agent to escape a lab – something vividly illustrated by the anthrax letters in the US four years ago. Unlike anthrax, however, 1918 influenza would transmit from human to human.
“We are no safer from a pandemic today than yesterday. In fact, we’re in greater danger, not only from influenza; but from the failure of the US to come to grips with and address the threats posed by the research it sponsors, in terms of legislation, ethics, and self-restraint,” concludes Hammond.