CDC mishaps show live flu viruses are nothing to play with

By Carlos Moreno
July 28, 2014


Over the past two months, a series of mishaps at the CDC and NIH — involving mishandled anthrax, mislabeled influenza and misplaced smallpox — has alarmed the scientific community. The common theme surrounding all of them is human error.

In June as many as 75 workers were exposed to live anthrax when researchers, failed to properly verify that anthrax spores were sterilized before moving them out of the high-level biosafety laboratory. In early July, NIH researchers discovered previously unknown stores of live smallpox at the NIH and transported them to the CDC for secure storage. Around the same time, the CDC disclosed that last March, several vials of supposedly mild influenza had been cross-contaminated with the highly lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu, exposing researchers to unanticipated risk of infection. A senior-level CDC director has now resigned and a major review of biosafety security protocols at the CDC and NIH is currently underway — but more should be done.

These mishaps show why we need to stop conducting certain types of research on strains of flu virus that could cause worldwide epidemics, or pandemics. In these types of research — which involve live, intact viruses that can spread from person to person — the risks outweigh the benefits. The scientists who are investigating these strains hope to develop vaccines capable of preventing the spread of the viruses. But it’s possible that they could accidentally cause what they are trying to prevent. Additionally, actively trying to make these types of flu more dangerous, in order to develop vaccines against a pandemic virus, and publishing the recipes provides a handbook for potential bio terrorists who might create and release the viruses.

Don’t get me wrong. I support influenza research to help develop vaccines and rapid responses to deadly strains. Influenza research is critical to public health and is an essential part of biomedical research and public health policy.

But there’s a difference between working with strains that are not transmissible between humans — or with subsets of genes from inactive virus — and deliberately constructing and then researching live, intact viruses that could escape a lab and spread. While the likelihood is quite low, these strains could escape, leading to the possibility (however remote) of massive fatalities worldwide.  Fortunately, the FDA approved an H5N1 vaccine in 2013, and the 2009 pandemic flu vaccines provide some cross protection against the 1918 pandemic strain H1N1, so the probability of a public health disaster from these particular types of flu is quite low.

Nevertheless, even if the risk that a virus escapes is much less than 1 percent, unlikely things do eventually happen with enough rolls of the dice. Recent events have shown that regardless of whatever safeguards exist, human error is unavoidable.

Proponents of working with live strains of viruses argue that the only way to test the infectiousness of a virus is to infect an animal and see how it spreads. But these experiments have already been performed and published. Continuing such work will likely make these strains more contagious and the justification for this research more problematic.

It’s time to consider re-instituting a research moratorium on any live influenza virus that has pandemic potential. While research on weakened viruses or individual genes that don’t pose a public health risk should continue, stocks of live, infectious lethal influenza should be transported to the CDC for safekeeping, or destroyed. 

PHOTO: Israeli medical personnel prepare smallpox vaccines in the ministry of health in Jerusalem January 2, 2003. REUTERS/Yossi Zamir/FLASH’90


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