1977 H1N1 influenza virus is not relevant to the gain of function debate

The individuals who believe that certain types of gain-of-function experiments should not be done because they are too dangerous (including Lipsitch, Osterholm, Wain-Hobson,) cite the 1977 influenza virus H1N1 strain as an example of a laboratory accident that has led to a global epidemic. A new analysis shows that the reappearance of the 1997 H1N1 virus has little relevance to the gain-of-function debate.

Human influenza viruses of the H3N2 subtype were circulating in May of 1977 when H1N1 viruses were identified in China and then Russia. These viruses spread globally and continue to circulate to this day. The results of serological tests and genetic analysis indicated that these viruses were very similar to viruses of the same subtype which circulated in 1950 (I was in the Palese laboratory in 1977 when these finding emerged). Three hypotheses were suggested to explain the re-emergence of the H1N1 virus: a laboratory accident, deliberate release, or a vaccine trial.

Rozo and Gronvall have re-examined the available evidence for the origin of the 1977 H1N1 virus. While there is ample documentation of the extensive work done during the 1970s in the Soviet Union on biological weapons, there is no evidence that Biopreparat had attempted to weaponize influenza virus. The release of the 1977 H1N1 virus from a biological weapons program is therefore considered unlikely.

It is more likely that the 1977 H1N1 virus was released during testing of influenza virus vaccines. Many such trials were ongoing in the USSR and China during the 1960s-70s. C.M. Chu, a Chinese virologist, told Peter Palese that the H1N1 strain was in fact used in challenge studies of thousands of military recruits, an event which could have initiated the outbreak.

The hypothesis that the 1977 H1N1 virus accidentally escaped from a research laboratory is formally possible, but there are even less data to support this contention. Shortly after this virus emerged, WHO discounted the possibility of a laboratory accident, based on investigations of Soviet and Chinese laboratories. Furthermore, the H1N1 virus was isolated at nearly the same time in three distant areas of China, making release from a single laboratory unlikely.

It is of interest that with the onset of the gain-of-function debate, which began in 2011 with the adaptation of influenza H5N1 virus to aerosol transmission among ferrets, the ‘laboratory accident’ scenario for the emergence of the 1977 strain has been increasingly used as an example of why certain types of experiments are ‘too dangerous’ to be done (See graph, upper left). For example, Wain-Hobson says that ‘1977 H1N1 represented an accidental reintroduction of an old vaccine strain pre-1957, probably from a Russian research lab’. Furmanski writes that ‘The virus may have escaped from a lab attempting to prepare an attenuated H1N1 vaccine’. In the debate on gain-of-function experiments, the laboratory escape hypothesis is prominently featured in public presentations.

The use of an unproven hypothesis to support the view that some research is too dangerous to do is another example of how those opposed to gain-of-function research bend the truth to advance their position. I have previously explained how Lipsitch incorrectly represented the results of the H5N1 ferret transmission studies. We should not be surprised at this tactic. After all, Lipsitch originally called for a debate on the gain-of-function issue, then shortly thereafter declared that the moratorium should be permanent.

Rozo and Gronvall conclude that the use of the 1977 influenza epidemic as a cautionary tale is wrong, because it is more likely that it was the result of a vaccine trial and not a single laboratory accident:

While the events that led to the 1977 influenza epidemic cannot preclude a future consequential accident stemming from the laboratory, it remains likely that to this date, there has been no real-world example of a laboratory accident that has led to a global epidemic.

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.

End of moratorium on influenza H5N1 research

In early 2012 influenza virus researchers around the world decided to stop working on highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 virus. This decision came after work from the Fouchier and Kawaoka laboratories revealed the isolation of influenza H5N1 strains that can be passed among ferrets by aerosol. The moratorium on influenza H5N1 virus research has now been lifted, as described in a letter from influenza virologists to Science and Nature.

Lifting the embargo on H5N1 research is an important step forward for understanding what regulates influenza transmission. In my view it was an ill-conceived move, done to quell the growing concern over the adaptation of influenza H5N1 virus to aerosol transmission in ferrets. We now know that these viruses are not lethal for ferrets, and much of the outrage expressed about this work was misguided. In my view the moratorium has accomplished little other than delaying the conduct of important virology research.

According to the influenza virus researchers who signed on to the moratorium, its purpose was to:

…provide time to explain the public-health benefits of this work, to describe the measures in place to minimize pos- sible risks, and to enable organizations and governments around the world to review their policies (for example on biosafety, biosecurity, oversight, and communication) regarding these experiments.

An important consideration is the level of containment that will be required for studying influenza H5N1 transmission. WHO has released recommendations on risk control measures for H5N1 research, and individual countries will decided how to proceed. The US has not yet made a decision on the level of containment needed for H5N1 virus transmission research. Influenza virologists who participated in the moratorium have their own view:

We consider biosafety level 3 conditions with the considerable enhancements (BSL-3+) outlined in the referenced publications (11–13) as appropriate for this type of work, but recognize that some countries may require BSL-4 conditions in ac- cordance with applicable standards (such as Canada).

Their last statement forms the crux of the issue on H5N1 transmission research:

We fully acknowledge that this research—as with any work on infectious agents—is not without risks. However, because the risk exists in nature that an H5N1 virus capable of transmission in mammals may emerge, the benefits of this work outweigh the risks.

Moratorium on influenza H5N1 transmission research

In letters to Science and Nature, the authors of the controversial avian H5N1 influenza virus transmission experiments in ferrets, together with other influenza virologists, have agreed to a 60 day moratorium on transmission research:

…we have agreed on a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals. In addition, no experiments with live H5N1 or H5 HA reassortant viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets will be conducted during this time.

They write that research will continue on assessing the “transmissibility of H5N1 influenza viruses that emerge in nature and pose a continuing threat to human health”.

This research is being halted because of the concerns that ferret-transmissible H5N1 viruses may escape from laboratories. They argue that the finding in two laboratories that viruses with a hemagglutinin (HA) protein from highly pathogenic avian H5N1 influenza viruses can become transmissible in ferrets advances our understanding of influenza transmission. Nevertheless,

We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks. We propose to do so in an international forum in which the scientific community comes together to discuss and debate these issues.

I agree in principle with this decision, because the argument over this research has become increasingly polarized in recent weeks, with a distressing demarcation between those who believe the work should proceed, and those who feel it should not be done. A dialogue to identify the crucial issues and develop plans to address them, while continuing this important line of research, is certainly welcome.

I am curious to see who will participate in the proposed dialogue. I do hope it will be a balanced forum: a fair mix of microbiologists, especially those working on influenza virus, and those interested in biosecurity. As I have said before, scientists will listen to the policy analysts, but the latter must also understand the science.

Update: Alan Dove has written an honest analysis of the moratorium announcement.


Palese: Don’t censor live-saving science
N.Y. Times: H5N1 ferret research should not have been done
Should we fear avian H5N1 influenza?
A bad day for science
Ferreting out influenza H5N1