A Japanese scientist working in the United States said Wednesday he has engineered a virulent new strain of the swine flu virus that could spread unchecked because it defeats the human immune system.
The research, on the 2009 H1N1 virus at a high-security lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has not yet been published. It was first reported on Tuesday by a British newspaper.
The article dubbed virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka “controversial,” adding that “some scientists who are aware of (the work) are horrified.”
Kawaoka later confirmed he has been able to make changes to a particular protein that would enable the 2009 H1N1 virus to dodge the immune system.
“Through selection of immune escape viruses in the laboratory under appropriate containment conditions, we were able to identify the key regions (that) would enable 2009 H1N1 viruses to escape” being targeted by human antibodies, he said in an email.
The British newspaper called his research “provocative” because it sought to create a deadly flu from which humans could not escape. Kawaoka described the report as sensationalist.
“It is unfortunate that online news outlets choose to manipulate the message in this way to attract readers, with sensational headlines, especially in regard to science and public health matters,” he said.
Kawaoka said the research aimed to find out how the flu virus might mutate in nature so that scientists could devise better vaccines against it.
He said he has presented his initial findings to a World Health Organization committee, adding that they had been “well received.”
Controversy erupted in 2011 and 2012 over research on the H5N1 bird flu, after Dutch and U.S. teams of scientists each found ways to engineer a virus that could spread easily among mammals.
Concerns were raised over the potential to create a deadly pandemic like the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, which killed 50 million people.
A key worry was that terrorists could find a way to culture and release the virus, or that it might escape from a research lab by accident.
Scientists halted work for a time but the experiments were eventually published in major science journals.