[Homestead] are you ready for the 1918 flu ?
tonihawr at msn.com
Sat Sep 18 10:45:21 EDT 2004
But did the "exhuming" crew wear all that necessary gear ?
Not bloody likely .... the bodies have been dug up but only *now*
are they "considering" under what level bio-security to *work*
on them ....
1918 killer flu virus to be tested in UW lab
By TOM PAULSON
The Seattle Post Intelligencer
September 18, 2004
Seattle, WA - University of Washington scientists plan to infect monkeys with a killer flu virus grown from tissue exhumed from victims of the 1918 epidemic.
They hope the insight they gain will unravel the mystery of why tens of millions of people worldwide died from the virulent flu strain and lead to development of better vaccines and drugs that may save lives in the future.
"This was the most deadly infectious disease in the history of mankind, killing at least 40 million people," said Dr. Michael Katze, a UW microbiologist and principal investigator for the local arm of the project.
"To this day, nobody understands why the virus was so deadly."
Most experts believe another killer flu pandemic is overdue, Katze said, so it's critical to gain information about the disease.
The UW received part of a $12.7 million grant, funded largely from Congress' $1.7 billion biodefense appropriation to the National Institutes of Health, to collaborate on the 1918 flu study with Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C.
A skeptic of resurrecting and enlivening the 1918 flu virus, however, said it is critical to first make sure we are adequately protected against creating a "man-made" pandemic.
"This project could create a new bug that infects someone in the lab who then walks out at the end of the day and, literally, kills tens of millions of people," said Ed Hammond, director of a biotechnology and bioweapons watchdog organization called the Sunshine Project, based in Austin, Texas.
Although Hammond said he could accept the noble intentions of the UW scientists, he noted that there are no national laboratory standards for dealing with this particular virus.
The lack of regulatory protection, he said, stems from the fact that influenza is generally regarded as a fairly routine disease.
"But this organism, the 1918 virus, is something else," Hammond said. "It's very dangerous and easily spread."
He contended that the 1918 virus deserves one of the highest levels of laboratory containment systems, known as Biosafety Level 3 Ag -- so-called because the criteria were set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The only greater level of protection (in which lab workers don self-contained "moon suits" inside a pressurized, air-locked, multilayered lab) is Biosafety Level 4.
The first step in this project will be to spend about $300,000 of the grant to beef up the biosafety levels of protection at the Seattle facility, said Dr. William Morton, director of the regional primate research center at the UW.
"We do need to have an elevated level of containment," Morton said.
The lab facilities, which are primarily used today for HIV research involving primates, are built to Biosafety Level 2.
But Morton said it's not clear that the 1918 flu study will require all the Biosafety Level 3 Ag protections.
He said the plan is to create an "enhanced" level 3 lab on one floor of the primate center, located in a non-descript research building in Belltown.
The difference between a routine Biosafety Level 3 lab and the Biosafety Level 3 Ag lab is significant. Only the latter has an air-lock entry, a system for decontaminating wastewater and various other filters or devices aimed at minimizing the spread of infectious disease.
Morton said the precise design for converting the lab would depend upon recommendations from the NIH.
Karen Van Dusen, UW director of environmental health and safety, said Hammond is correct that there are no agreed-upon laboratory standards for dealing with the 1918 flu virus.
"Our situation here is very similar to the early days of the AIDS epidemic, figuring out how to safely deal with HIV," Van Dusen said.
This is because the 1918 virus had disappeared after the outbreak.
Viral DNA was recovered a few years ago from the exhumed bodies of those killed in the pandemic. Most of the DNA came from those who had died in northern latitudes where the permanently frozen ground had preserved viral DNA.
Scientists at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and at Mount Sinai led some of the expeditions to dig up the 1918 victims and genetically reconstitute the virus.
"We intend to be very cautious," Van Dusen said. "No matter what standard comes out, we intend to meet or exceed it" -- unless the recommendation is Biosafety Level 4. "If they're going to require a Biosafety Level 4, we won't do this," she said.
Katze has already been working with non-infectious, genetic fragments of the 1918 flu virus. He and his colleagues have shown that the macaque monkeys develop infections similar to that of humans and should provide excellent animal models for trying to decipher this killer bug's mode of operation.
Katze's team will seek to learn more about the nature of the 1918 flu by inserting key genes from the killer flu into a common flu strain. The flu virus has only eight genes, said Katze, so they hope to rapidly target which genes are most responsible for virulence. The monkeys will be euthanized weeks after being infected, the UW scientists said, to allow for tissue, cellular and genetic testing.
P-I reporter Tom Paulson can be reached at 206-448-8318 or tompaulson at seattlepi.com
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