By Lee Taylor
April 04, 2012
A SCIENTIST who worked on a “super virus” to make it spread easily between humans has defended his actions and revealed how he created it.
Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said he made a hybrid flu strain by merging H5N1 bird flu with the “swine flu” virus that caused a pandemic in humans in 2009, The Guardian reports.
Science magazine described the new strain as a virus “that could change world history if it were ever set free”.
Prof Kawaoka said the experiments were “important for pandemic preparedness” and emphasised the need for countries to stockpile vaccines to combat bird flu.
Working in a high-security laboratory, Prof Kawaoka said he wanted to find out whether the bird flu virus could pick up genetic mutations in the wild that would allow it to adapt to humans and spread rapidly like seasonal flu.
He said bird flu does not spread well between people because it cannot bind to cells in the throat and nose, where it can be coughed and sneezed out.
However, through a series of experiments in ferrets, he created a strain that helped the virus latch on to and infect cells in the throat.
Passing the flu from one ferret to another, the team discovered the H5N1 strain mutated into an airborne virus. Until now, that was the key factor in the virus limited it to something unlikely to cause a pandemic.
Prof Kawaoka was speaking for the first time about the experiments after the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) called for sections of his work to be deleted amid fears a terrorists might use the information to create a biological weapon.
They then demanded virologists researching the work don’t release full details of their success.
The teams that wrote papers about the new virus reluctantly agreed to redact data from manuscripts to be submitted to scientific journals Science and Nature for publication.
However, an advisory board reversed and approved Prof Kawaoka’s account of the experiments to be published in full.
Last September a Dutch research team led by Ron Fouchier at Rotterdam’s Erasmus Medical Centre also created a mutant version of the H5N1 bird flu virus that could spread among mammals.