Those of you with an interest in virology, or perhaps simply sensationalism, have probably seen the recent headlines proclaiming another laboratory-made killer influenza virus. From The Independent: ‘Appalling irresponsibility: Senior scientists attack Chinese researchers for creating new strains of influenza virus'; and from InSing.com: ‘Made-in-China killer flu virus’. It’s unfortunate that the comments of several scientists have tainted what is a very well done set of experiments. Let’s deconstruct the situation with an analysis of the science that was done.
It is known that avian influenza H5N1 viruses can occasionally infect but not transmit among humans, while the 2009 pandemic H1N1 virus (which continues to circulate) readily transmits from person to person. The investigators asked whether reassortants of the two viruses – which could arise in nature – might confer transmissibility to H5N1 virus. To answer this question they produced 127 different reassortants of the two viruses, and tested their ability to transmit by aerosol among guinea pigs. The latter have been used for transmission studies on influenza, notably to understand the seasonality of infection. Ferrets have been more famously used for influenza virus transmission studies.
Rather than describe the results, I’ve made an illustration that shows what I believe to be the most important conclusions of the study (click for a larger version):
The H5N1 virus (red RNAs) is not transmissible among guinea pigs, while the H1N1 virus (green RNAs) has highly efficient transmission. Exchange of the H5N1 RNA coding for PA or NS from H1N1 produces a highly transmissible virus. Exchange of the H5N1 RNA coding for NA or M produces a less efficiently transmitted virus. These are interesting and novel findings. It will be of great interest to determine how the PA, NS, NA, or M genes mechanistically enhance aerosol transmission. This is important information because our understanding of the determinants of transmission is very poor.
All the reassortant viruses shown in the figure have the H5 HA; when only the H1 of the H1N1 virus was substituted with the H5 HA, the reassortant virus transmitted efficiently among guinea pigs. In ferrets the H5 HA is not compatible with aerosol transmission. Therefore guinea pigs are clearly different from ferrets with respect to the determinants of transmissibility.
I cannot understand why some scientists have called these experiments ‘appallingly irresponsible’ and of no scientific use. I can only assume that they are not familiar with the literature on viral transmission and do not appreciate how the results advance our understanding of the field. It also seems irresponsible to predict that these viruses, should they escape from the laboratory, could kill millions of people. If you accept guinea pigs as a predictor of human pathogenicity – which I do not – then there is no reason for fear because none of the reassortants were lethal. I do not believe that any animal model predicts what will occur in humans, and so I am even less concerned about the safety of these experiments. I firmly believe that laboratory-constructed viruses do not have what it takes to be a human pathogen: only viral evolution in nature can produce the right combination of RNA segments and mutations. I also believe that scientists are quite responsible when it comes to safe handling of pathogens. If we worry about every type of transmission experiment involving influenza H5N1 virus, we will never make progress in understanding why this virus does not transmit among humans. The moratorium on H5N1 transmission research is over; let’s move beyond the sensational headlines and get back to the science.
In summary, I believe that these are well designed experiments which show that single RNA exchanges with H1N1 virus can produce an H5N1 virus that transmits via aerosol among guinea pigs. The relevance of these findings to humans is not known; nevertheless understanding how the individual viral proteins identified in this study enhance transmission may be mechanistically informative. I believe that the news headlines depicting these experiments as irresponsible and dangerous are based on uninformed statements made by scientists who are not familiar with the literature on influenza virus transmission. I wonder if they even read the paper in its entirety before making their comments.