TWiV 354: The cat in the HAART

On episode #354 of the science show This Week in Virology, the esteemed doctors of TWiV review a new giant virus recovered from the Siberian permafrost, why influenza virus gain of function experiments are valuable, and feline immunodeficiency virus.

You can find TWiV #354 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

TWiV 321: aTRIP and a pause

On episode #321 of the science show This Week in Virology, Paul Duprex joins the TWiV team to discuss the current moratorium on viral research to alter transmission, range and resistance, infectivity and immunity, and pathogenesis.

You can find TWiV #321 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

The value of influenza aerosol transmission experiments

ferretA Harvard epidemiologist has been on a crusade to curtail aerosol transmission experiments on avian influenza H5N1 virus because he believes that they are too dangerous and of little value. Recently he has taken his arguments to the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. While Dr. Lipsitch is certainly entitled to his opinion, his arguments do not support his conclusions.

In early 2013 Lipsitch was the subject of a piece in Harvard Magazine about avian influenza H5N1 virus entitled The Deadliest Virus.  I have previously criticized this article  in which Lipsitch calls for more stringent H5N1 policies. More recently Lipsitch published an opinion in PLoS Medicine in which he called for alternatives to experiments with potential pandemic pathogens. We discussed this piece thoroughly on This Week in Virology #287.  The arguments he uses in both cases are similar to those in the OpEd.

The Times OpEd is entitled Anthrax? That’s not the real worry. The title is a reference to the possible exposure to anthrax bacteria of workers at the Centers for Disease Control. Even worse than anthrax, argues Lipsitch, would be accidental exposure to a pathogen that could transmit readily among humans. He then argues that such a pathogen is being created in laboratories that study avian influenza H5N1 transmission.

Lipsitch tells us ‘These experiments use flu strains like H5N1, which kills up to 60 percent of humans who catch it from birds.’ As an epidemiologist Lipsitch knows that this statement is wrong. The case fatality ratio for avian H5N1 influenza virus in humans is 60% – the number of deaths divided by the cases of human infections that are diagnosed according to WHO criteria. The mortality rate is quite different: it is the number of fatalities divided by the total number of H5N1 infections of humans. For a number of reasons the H5N1 mortality ratio in humans has been a difficult number to determine.

Next Lipsitch incorrectly states that the goal of experiments in which avian influenza H5N1 viruses are given the ability to transmit by aerosol among ferrets is ‘to see what gives a flu virus the potential to create a pandemic.’ The goal of these experiments is to identify mechanistically what is needed to make an avian influenza virus transmit among mammals. Transmission of a virus is required for a pandemic, but by no means does it assure one. I do hope that Lipsitch knows better, and is simply trying to scare the readers.

He then turns to the experiments of Kawaoka and colleagues who recently reconstructed a 1918-like avian influenza virus and provided it with the ability to transmit by aerosol among ferrets. These experiments are inaccurately described. Lipsitch writes that the reconstructed virus was ‘both contagious and comparably deadly to the 1918 flu that killed tens of millions of people worldwide’. In fact the reconstructed virus is less virulent in ferrets than the 1918 H1N1 virus that infected humans. In the same sentence Lipsitch mixes virulence in ferrets with virulence in humans – something even my virology students know is wrong. Then he writes that ‘Unlike experiments with anthrax, creating such flu strains in the lab presents a danger that affects us all, because once it is out, such a strain would be extremely hard to control.’ This is not true for the 1918-like avian influenza virus assembled by the Kawaoka lab: it was shown that antibodies to the 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza virus can block its replication. The current influenza virus vaccine contains a 2009 H1N1 component that would protect against the 1918-like avian influenza virus.

The crux of the problem seems to be that Lipsitch does not understand the purpose of influenza virus transmission experiments. He writes that ‘The virologists conducting these experiments say that by learning about how flu transmits in ferrets, we will be able to develop better vaccines and spot dangerous strains in birds before they become pandemic threats.’ This justification for the work is wrong.

Both Kawaoka and Fouchier have suggested that identifying mutations that improve aerosol transmission of avian influenza viruses in ferrets might help to detect strains with transmission potential, and help vaccine manufacture. I think it was an error to focus on these potential benefits because it detracted from the real value of the work, to provide mechanistic information on what allows aerosol transmission of influenza viruses among mammals.

In the Kawaoka and Fouchier studies, it was found that adaptation of H5N1 influenza virus from avian to mammalian receptors lead to a decrease in the stability of the viral HA glycoprotein. This property had to be reversed in order for these viruses to transmit by aerosol among ferrets. Similar stabilization of the HA protein was observed when the reconstructed 1918-like avian influenza virus was adapted to aerosol transmission among ferrets. It is not simply coincidence when three independent studies come up with the same outcome: clearly HA stability is important for aerosol transmission among mammals. This is one property to look for in circulating H5N1 strains, not simply amino acid changes.

Lipsitch mentions nothing about the mechanism of transmission; he focuses on identifying mutations for surveillance and vaccine development. He ignores the fundamental importance of this work. In this context, the work has tremendous value.

The remainder of the Times OpEd reminds us how often accidents occur in high security biological labortories. There are problems with these arguments. Lipsitch cites the emergence of an H1N1 influenza virus in 1977 as ‘escaped from a lab in China or the Soviet Union’. While is seems clear that the 1977 H1N1 virus probably came from a laboratory, there is zero evidence that it was a laboratory accident. It is equally likely that the virus was part of a clinical trial in which it was deliberately administered to humans.

Lipsitch also cites the numerous incidents that occur in American laboratories involving select agents. I suggest the reader listen to Ron Fouchier explain on TWiV #291 how a computer crash must be recorded as an incident in high biosecurity laboratories, but does not lead to the release of infectious agents.

Lipsitch clearly feels that the benefits of aerosol transmission research do not justify the risks involved. I agree that the experiments do have some risk, but it is not as clear cut as Lipsitch would suggest. Although ferrets are a good model for influenza virus pathogenesis, like any animal model, they are not predictive of what occurs in humans. An influenza virus that transmits by aerosol among ferrets cannot be assumed to transmit in the same way among humans. This is the assumption made by Lipsitch, and it is wrong.

I agree that transmission work on avian H5N1 influenza virus must be done under the proper containment. Before these experiments can be done they are subject to extensive review of the proposed containment and mitigation procedures. There is no justification for the additional regulation proposed by Lipsitch.

In my opinion aerosol transmission experiments on avian influenza viruses are well worth the risk. We know nothing about what controls aerosol transmission of viruses. The way to obtain this information is to take a virus that does not transmit by aerosol, derive a transmissible version, and determine why the virus has this new property. To conclude that such experiments are not worth the risk not only ignores the importance of understanding transmission, but also fails to acknowledge the unpredictable nature of science. Often the best experimental results are those which were never anticipated.

Lipsitch ends by saying that ‘There are dozens of safe research strategies to understand, prevent and treat pandemic flu. Only one strategy — creating virulent, contagious strains — risks inciting such a pandemic.’ Creating a virulent strain is not part of the strategy. Lipsitch conveniently ignores the fact that Fouchier’s H5N1 strain that transmits by aerosol among ferrets is not virulent when transmitted by that route. And of course we do not know if these strains would be transmissible in humans.

I am very disappointed that the Times chose to publish this OpEd without checking Lipsitch’s statements. He is certainly entitled to his own opinion, but he is not entitled to his own facts.

TWiV 287: A potentially pandemic podcast

On episode #287 of the science show This Week in Virology, Matt Frieman updates the TWiV team on MERS-coronavirus, and joins in a discussion of whether we should further regulate research on potentially pandemic pathogens.

You can find TWiV #287 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

Incidence of asymptomatic human influenza A(H5N1) virus infection

BangladeshWhen virologists Fouchier and Kawaoka were isolating avian influenza H5N1 viruses that could transmit among ferrets by aerosol, there was consternation from some quarters that such viruses might escape from the laboratory and cause a pandemic in humans. Part of the fear came from the fact that the case fatality ratio for human infections with the H5N1 virus exceeds 50%. This number could be substantially higher than the lethality ratio, which is the number of symptomatic cases divided by the total number of infections. Divining the latter number has been difficult. Results of a meta-analysis published in 2012 suggest that H5N1 seropositivity approaches 1-2% in certain populations. Others have concluded that these studies are flawed, clouded by false positives and cross-reacting antigens. Recently two additional studies have been published that contribute to this discussion.

The first paper is a case report of subclinical avian influenza H5N1 virus infection in a Vietnamese household in which family members were involved in slaughtering, preparing, and consuming chickens, and birds were permitted to roam freely in the sleeping area. Four chickens from this household were found to be positive for H5N1 virus by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) of throat and cloacal swab specimens. The 40-year old father died after a severe four day respiratory illness requiring hospitalization; H5N1 viral RNA was detected by PCR of a throat swab on day 3 of illness. A throat swab from his daughter, taken 6 days after she had killed a chicken, was positive by PCR, and H5N1 virus was recovered by inoculation of cell cultures. Her hemagglutination-inhibition (HI) titer, a measure of anti-viral antibodies, increased from <20 to 160, but she showed no signs of illness, perhaps because she was treated with oseltamivir from day 5 of her father’s illness.

The authors note the difficulty in detecting subclinical H5N1 infections:

…it is unclear whether serologic testing reliably detects subclinical cases. According to the World Health Organization,MN (microneutralization) titers >80 are indicative of infection but must be confirmed by a second serologic test because of the possibility of cross-reactivity. The interpretation of results from a single serum sample is limited by the specificity or sensitivity of serologic tests, and viral shedding times may mean that infected cases may be missed.

The second study examined seroprevalence of anti-H5N1 virus antibodies in poultry workers in Bangladesh. Sera were collected in 2009 from poultry workers on farms (212 from 87 farms) and live bird markets (210 from 3 markets). Some of the farm workers (91%) reported handling sick animals during laboratory-confirmed H5N1 outbreaks. Sera were screened for antibodies to H5N1 virus by two methods: microneutralization and hemagglutination-inhibition. None of the individuals were seropositive for anti-H5N1 virus antibodies.

I have several reservations about this study. Although H5N1 virus was identified on the poultry farms whose workers were sampled, the sera were drawn from 22 to 543 days after the onset of poultry deaths. If any of the workers had been infected with H5N1 virus, anti-viral antibody titers might have already declined by this time. Although the sera were examined for anti-viral antibodies by two different tests, paired sera were not used, as recommended by the authors of the first paper discussed above.

Therefore the answer to the question ‘what is the fatality rate of influenza H5n1 virus infections in humans?’ still cannot be answered. As the authors of the first paper conclude:

Estimating the incidence of asymptomatic influenza A(H5N1) virus infection in humans exposed to sick poultry or human case-patients requires further careful study using early collection of swab samples and paired acute and convalescent serum samples.

TWiV 246: Pandora, pandemics, and privacy

On episode #246 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, Rich, and Kathy discuss the huge Pandoravirus, virologists planning H7N9 gain of function experiments, and limited access to the HeLa cell genome sequence.

You can find TWiV #246 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

We recorded this episode of TWiV as a Google hangout on air. Consequently the audio is not the same quality as you might be used to. But the tradeoff is that you can see each of us on video.

 

Influenza H7N9 gain of function experiments on Dispatch Radio

I spoke with Robert Herriman, executive editor of The Global Dispatch, about the proposed avian influenza H7N9 virus gain of function experiments on Dispatch Radio.

Virologists plan influenza H7N9 gain of function experiments

A group of virologists lead by Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier have sent a letter to Nature and Science outlining the experiments they propose to carry out with influenza H7N9 virus.

Avian influenza H7N9 virus has caused over 130 human infections in China with 43 fatalities. The source of the virus is not known but is suspected to be wet market poultry. No human to human transmission have been detected, and the outbreak seems to be under control. According to the authors of the letter, the virus could re-emerge this winter, and therefore additional work is needed to assess the risk of human infection.

The research that the virologists propose involve gain-of-function experiments which provide the H7N9 virus with new properties. The isolation of avian influenza H5N1 viruses that can transmit by aerosol among ferrets is an example of a gain-of-function experiment.

The proposed gain-of-function experiments fall into five general categories:

  • Determine whether viruses with altered virulence, host range, or transmissibility have changes in antigenicity, or the ability of the virus to react with antibodies. The results of these studies would suggest whether, for example, acquisition of human to human transmissibility would have an impact on protection conferred by a vaccine produced with the current H7N9 virus strain.
  • Determine if the H7N9 virus could be adapted to mammals and whether it could produce reassortants with other influenza viruses. The results of this work would provide information on how likely it is that the H7N9 virus would become better adapted to infect humans.
  • Isolate mutants of H7N9 virus that are resistant to antiviral drugs. The purpose of these experiments is to identify how drug resistance arises (the mutations can then be monitored in clinical isolates), determine the stability of drug resistant mutants, and whether they confer other properties to the virus.
  • Determine the genetic changes that accompany selection of H7N9 viruses that can transmit by aerosol among mammals such as guinea pigs and ferrets. As I have written before, the point of these experiments, in my view, is not to simply identify specific changes that lead to aerosol transmission. Such work provides information on the mechanisms by which viruses can become adapted to aerosol transmission, still an elusive goal.
  • Identify changes in H7N9 virus that allow it to become more pathogenic. The results of these experiments provide information on the mechanism of increased pathogenicity and whether it is accompanied by other changes in properties of the virus.

I believe that the proposed gain-of-function experiments are all worth doing. I do not share the concerns of others about the potential dangers associated with gain-of-function experiments: for example the possibility that a virus selected for higher virulence could escape the laboratory and cause a lethal pandemic. Gain-of-function is almost always accompanied by a loss-of-function. For example, the H5N1 viruses that gained the ability to transmit by aerosol among ferrets lost their virulence by this route of infection. When these experiments are done under the proper containment, the likelihood that accidents will happen is extremely small.

All the proposed experiments that would use US funds will have to be reviewed and approved by the Department of Health and Human Services:

The HHS review will consider the acceptability of these experiments in light of potential scientific and public-health benefits as well as biosafety and biosecurity risks, and will identify any additional risk-mitigation measures needed.

While I understand that the authors wish to promote a dialogue on laboratory safety and dual-use research, I question the ultimate value of the communication. Because the letter has been published in two scientific journals, I assume that the target audience of the letter is the scientific community. However, the letter will clearly have coverage in the popular press and I am certain that it will be misunderstood by the general public. I can see the headlines now: “Scientists inform the public that they will continue to make deadly flu viruses”. The controversy about the H5N1 influenza virus transmission studies in ferrets all began with a discussion of the results before the scientific papers had been published. I wonder if the publication of these letters will spark another controversy about gain-of-function research.

In my view, science is best served by the traditional process known to be highly productive: a grant is written to secure funding for proposes experiments, the grant proposal is subject to scientific review by peers, and based on the review the work may or may not be supported. The experiments are done and the results are published. I do not understand why it is necessary to trigger outrage and debate by announcing the intent to do certain types of experiments.

I am curious to know what the many readers of virology blog – scientists and non-scientists – feel about the publication of this letter. Please use the comment field below to express your views on this topic.

Inefficient influenza H7N9 virus aerosol transmission among ferrets

ferretThere have been 131 confirmed human infections with avian influenza H7N9 virus in China, but so far there is little evidence for human to human transmission. Three out of four patients report exposure to animals, ‘mostly chickens‘, suggesting that most of the infections are zoonoses. Whether or not the virus will evolve to transmit among humans is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile it has been found that one of the H7N9 virus isolates from Shanghai can transmit by aerosol among ferrets, albeit inefficiently.

Ferrets were inoculated intranasally with influenza A/Shanghai/02/2013 virus or A/California/07/2009, the 2009 pandemic H1N1 virus. One to two days later the ferrets developed fever, sneezing, coughing, and nasal discharge; both viruses induced similar clinical signs. Virus was shed in nasal secretions for 7 days. Six infected ferrets were then divided among three separate cages, and each group was housed with a naive ferret, and a second uninfected animal was placed in an adjacent cage. Airflow was controlled so that air flowed from the cage of infected animals towards the cage of naive animals. Transmission of infection was measured by observing clinical signs, and measuring virus shedding in nasal secretions and hemagglutination-inhibition antibodies in serum.

Of the three ferrets housed in the same cage with H7N9 virius-infected animals, all three had signs of infection (sneeze, cough, nasal discharge), shed virus in nasal secretions, and developed anti-HA antibodies. All three ferrets in neighboring cages developed signs of infection, but only one shed virus in nasal secretions, and two of three seroconverted. From these data the authors conclude that H7N9 virus is ‘efficiently transmitted between ferrets by direct contact, but less efficiently by airborne exposure’. In contrast, transmission of H1N1 virus to naive ferrets by contact or aerosol was efficient (3/3 animals in both cases).

The authors also found that pigs could be infected intranasally with A/Shanghai/02/2013 virus: the animals shed virus in nasal secretions and developed clinical symptoms. However the infected pigs transmitted infection inefficiently to other pigs by contact or aerosol, or to ferrets by aerosol.

The  authors’ equivocal conclusion that “Under appropriate conditions human to human transmission of the H7N9 virus may be possible” could have been reached even before these experiments were done. Their results provide no information on whether the virus can undergo human to human transmission because animal models are not definitive predictors of what might occur in humans. I disagree with the authors’ statement on page 5, “Efficient transmission of influenza viruses in ferrets is considered as a predictor of human to human transmissibility’. While many influenza virus strains that transmit among humans by aerosol also do so in ferrets, this does not mean that human transmission of a novel virus can be predicted by animal experiments.

Infection of ferrets with A/Shanghai/02/2013 or or A/California/07/2009 virus results in mild disease with no mortality. In contrast, 32 humans infected with H7N9 virus have died, and many humans have died after H1N1 infection. These findings further emphasize the differences in influenza virus pathogenesis in ferrets and humans.

Ferreting out the truth on Science Sunday Hangout on Air

I joined Buddhini SamarasingheScott Lewis, Tommy Leung, and William McEwan for a discussion of the avian influenza H5N1 virus transmission experiments done in ferrets.