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Medicine

How to Maintain Lab Safety While Making Viruses Deadlier 218

Posted by timothy
from the this-one-goes-to-11 dept.
Lasrick (2629253) writes "A scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published an article in June revealing that he had taken genes from the deadly human 1918 Spanish Flu and inserted them into the H5N1 avian flu to make a new virus—one which was both far deadlier and far more capable of spreading than the original avian strain. In July it was revealed that the same scientist was conducting another study in which he genetically altered the 2009 strain of flu to enable it to evade immune responses, 'effectively making the human population defenseless against re-emergence.' In the U.S. alone, biosafety incidents involving pathogens happen more than twice per week. These 'gain-of-function' experiments are accidents waiting to happen, with the possibility of starting deadly pandemics that could kill millions. It isn't as if it hasn't happened before: in 2009, a group of Chinese scientists created a viral strain of flu virus that escaped the lab and created a pandemic, killing thousands of people. 'Against this backdrop, the growing use of gain-of-function approaches for research requires more careful examination. And the potential consequences keep getting more catastrophic.' This article explores the history of lab-created pandemics and outlines recommendations for a safer approach to this type of research."
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How to Maintain Lab Safety While Making Viruses Deadlier

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 14, 2014 @12:00PM (#47670941)

    Someone put this scientist on the no fly list. That's some Twelve Monkeys shit he's pulling right there.

    • by magarity (164372)

      Someone put this scientist on the no fly list. That's some Twelve Monkeys shit he's pulling right there.

      But if they're on the no fly list they won't be able to get a sample of the original virus.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mellon (7048)

      The thing that boggles my mind about this is that apparently nobody in the chain of command at the university thinks there's anything wrong with what this brilliant idiot has done. If I were the prosecutor here, I would charge everybody who know about the experiment with a billion counts of attempted murder (just a back-of-the-envelope estimate), and throw the fuckers in the can for life. Unbelievable.

      • by HiThere (15173)

        Not attempted murder, because he didn't attempt to release the virus, and had no intention of doing so. Even if it were released, and he was responsible for the deaths, it wouldn't be murder. Manslaughter, perhaps. As it is it's closer to "reckless endangerment" (a more general class that includes reckless driving as a subclass).

        The problem would be proving that he acted recklessly. I accept that this is probable, given the history of biology lab accidents. (Wasn't it earlier this month that someone fo

        • by mellon (7048) on Thursday August 14, 2014 @04:23PM (#47673219) Homepage

          You are correct—this isn't attempted murder. But IMHO it's in the same moral category. I think you are basically right that it's a failure to think outside of the immediate problem space, but what a failure. Imagine if 40-60% of the people you have ever met or heard of, as well as those you don't, died within a month. The 1918 flu left emotional scars that persisted for generations. And that had a 2% mortality rate. The amount of suffering this person could have caused through his narrow thinking is more than has ever been experienced in all of history.

      • Why is this flamenait? The parent is right!
        If I lived in the US I would say 'I feel threatend' by that guy and shot him myself!

    • by s.petry (762400)

      Do you really believe that this is some rogue mad scientist? If so, why is the article not discussing the arrest of said mad scientist and how they are destroying all of their creations?

      What's that old saying? "Absolute power corrupts absolutely.", and this is the real state of affairs with the US Federal Government. These projects are being funded and approved by that same source. It's right on par with dumping radiation on impoverished cities in the US in the 50s and 60s, giving ethnic minorities syph

      • Your post is true. Your list of horrors should include this one and if those bother anyone, this should as well.

        It is unconscionable for the gov or anyone to actually create this item. There have been too many incidents of accidentally losing and miss filing and just plain letting escape of pathogens here and abroad to purposely create a friggin' virus that is *designed* to elude immune responses - in other words, purposely designed to kill at maximum. Yes, the government is the main culprit but this
    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 14, 2014 @02:24PM (#47672161)

      Scientists do this all the time. My buddy once worked in a lab in Maryland that engineered extremely virulent (in some cases deadly) rhinoviruses. Killer colds!

      They do this to understand what makes a virus more dangerous, or what makes it more contagious. It's part of the scientific method. If you have a theory that gene Z can make a virus more deadly, the best way to _test_ that hypothesis is to add gene Z to the virus and compare its effects to a control. You're not doing it to make a deadly virus; you're doing it so you can detect deadly viruses in the wild. Over time this has allowed us to estimate the future damage of viral epidemics with increasing accuracy.

      Of course, "best" is relative. It's best in the sense that it provides the most sound scientific data. But the potential non-scientific externalities come into play in a big way. The "best" way to test the radiological effects of nuclear fall-out is to drop a bomb on a population, but obviously that's a tad unethical.

    • Sounds just like "I am Legend". That is some scary crap.
  • So ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gstoddart (321705) on Thursday August 14, 2014 @12:00PM (#47670947) Homepage

    They essentially are making biological weapons in violation of international treaties, but they're saying it's all OK because it's for research?

    Sorry, but what? If someone in Iran was doing this people would be calling for airstrikes.

    The hubris of thinking "it's OK, I'm a trained professional, nothing bad can happen" is mind boggling.

    How is it even legal to be making deadlier strains of viruses?

    • by symes (835608)

      There has to be a balance between the risks associated with this research and possible gains. Given the potential cost to human life it is hard to understand why this research should continue. Particularly as it is the community in which the lab is based that will inevitably suffer most should there be an incident.

    • Re:So ... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Electricity Likes Me (1098643) on Thursday August 14, 2014 @12:08PM (#47671005)

      Yes that has to be it. It couldn't possibly be because biological research is amazingly difficult, and of the tools we have to study cells (few) we have even fewer to study viruses.

      The entire point of gain-of-function studies is that you need to do them in order to confirm a hypothesis about what genes in a virus are actually doing. If you don't do them, you can't know. Knock-out studies aren't enough - you can easily break a certain system, but it doesn't tell you that you actually understand how it functions.

      Sensationalist articles like this are incredibly stupid and dangerous to boot. We only have the slim number of effective anti-viral drugs we do because of research like this. How else do you think they figure out which biological pathways are worth targeting to shutdown a virus?

      And that's not all: the other side of gain-of-function is of course to try and predict future vectors. Since treating the common flu is usually a losing prospect at the moment, and it takes time to manufacture things, its important to determine if any given species could trivially gain extra functionality which would make it dangerous - since that affects decisions about what strains to grow up for the yearly flu vaccine.

      • Re:So ... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Electricity Likes Me (1098643) on Thursday August 14, 2014 @12:14PM (#47671063)

        I mean seriously. Skip the stupid article and actually read the abstract:

        Wild birds harbor a large gene pool of influenza A viruses that have the potential to cause influenza pandemics. Foreseeing and understanding this potential is important for effective surveillance. Our phylogenetic and geographic analyses revealed the global prevalence of avian influenza virus genes whose proteins differ only a few amino acids from the 1918 pandemic influenza virus, suggesting that 1918-like pandemic viruses may emerge in the future. To assess this risk, we generated and characterized a virus composed of avian influenza viral segments with high homology to the 1918 virus. This virus exhibited pathogenicity in mice and ferrets higher than that in an authentic avian influenza virus. Further, acquisition of seven amino acid substitutions in the viral polymerases and the hemagglutinin surface glycoprotein conferred respiratory droplet transmission to the 1918-like avian virus in ferrets, demonstrating that contemporary avian influenza viruses with 1918 virus-like proteins may have pandemic potential.

        The entire point of this research was to test whether we're at risk of something like the 1918 flu virus reoccurring, since the current avian flu virus is strikingly similar. This strikes me as kind of an important thing to know, since it informs almost every aspect of disease-response planning.

        The research was about taking avian flu, performing some fairly likely gene splicing of the type we know can happen during viral replication or incubation, and seeing if the observations of similarity are a problem. Turns out they are. But that also suggests that we might be able to make drugs which target the specific genes which confer the worst effects.

        Unless of course we do something really stupid, like letting sensationalist bullshit convince people to go all anti-science.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          We already know nature can create deadlier viruses. These are a bunch of irresponsible geeks seeing if they can make the most deadly strain for the mental masturbation and bragging rights. They don't need to do this to plan for disaster. And the only way their biology is likely to be of use is if their own strain escapes. Nature will make its own version which they will need to analyze for possible treatments. You don't need to create a potential civilization killer to learn those techniques either. Hubris
        • by mellon (7048)

          Um. Yes, it would be nice to know if we were at risk. But if the way to find out if we are at risk is by massively increasing the risk, maybe ignorance really is bliss in this case. That's the point the authors of the article are making, and I think it's an important point.

        • Re:So ... (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Goldsmith (561202) on Thursday August 14, 2014 @01:36PM (#47671717)

          It's not fair at all to link opposition to gain in function research to an "anti-science" mindset. You should be ashamed that you're resorting to that argument.

          This is something which is seriously debated in the pages of serious journals, at scientific conferences and by government program managers. To link valid concerns to an "anti-science" crowd is political bullshit maneuvering.

          There is a very real and valid cost/benefit analysis to be done on pursuing this work. As biology catches up to the physical sciences in scope and function, you're going to deal with the same issues we have dealt with (I am a physicist). One of those lessons is that scientists don't get to decide the purpose of our work. It doesn't matter what you write in your paper, or what the program manager tells you the purpose of the work is. It doesn't matter WHY someone does the work, all that matters is WHAT the work is. It's extremely naÃve to think an abstract in a research paper can properly define the purpose of a piece of research.

          There are experiments and research paths we do not follow because the intellectual benefit does not outweigh the very real possibilities for misuse. You asked how you expect people to validate these hypothesis without the work? Take a page from physical science and learn to use computer modeling and limited experimental work in lieu of full studies. Do some tool development. Don't just throw up your hands and insist this is the only way. It's not.

          This will require a cultural change, and there will be lots of hand-wringing over whether new results are valid, but biology will be a more mature field for it.

          • Re: So ... (Score:4, Insightful)

            by MmmmAqua (613624) on Thursday August 14, 2014 @02:10PM (#47672015)
            Okay, I hope I've misunderstood you. I work in genomics research, and your post seems, on its face, misinformed at best. Are you seriously suggesting that the computer modeling common to physics and chemistry can be applied to biological systems? Even in the case of something as "simple" as a virus (which may consist of tens to hundreds of thousands of kb pairs, specifying dozens or hundreds of RNA transcripts), simply modeling the virus is meaningless. You would also have to completely model host organisms and their immediate environments. Not even the NSA has that kind of compute power. You're dealing with emergent behaviors in interdependent systems far beyond the scope of what computer modeling can handle. There is no "model it as a simple sphere" approach in biology that can yield meaningful results at this level. Until we can phone up whatever god you happen to believe in (if any), the only way to find out what changing a virus will do to the virus, is to change the virus. The information gained is valuable enough that it is worth the minor risk involved in gaining it.
            • Re: So ... (Score:4, Insightful)

              by gizmo2199 (458329) on Thursday August 14, 2014 @02:36PM (#47672291) Homepage
              Until one day the Level 1 vial ends up in the incinerator, and the Level 4 vial ends up in the trash can, because, you know, shit happens; end result, millions dead.
            • You would also have to completely model host organisms and their immediate environments.

              Does this suggest you would be in favor of trying out this virus? Not on yourself of course, but on some other human in a city, as that would be the one and only way to determine how it works inside a human body and spreads?

              I am not.

              The information gained is valuable enough that it is worth the minor risk involved in gaining it.

              The risk is not minor, it is pandemic.

            • Okay, I hope I've misunderstood you. I work in genomics research, and your post seems, on its face, misinformed at best. Are you seriously suggesting that the computer modeling common to physics and chemistry can be applied to biological systems?

              Obligatory, https://xkcd.com/793/ [xkcd.com]

              Always keep in mind that physicists operate on a different plane in their own world dealing with quite different formal objects (or aspects) of "things" but they don't know it.

            • the only way to find out what changing a virus will do to the virus, is to change the virus.
              If that is what you believe you should change your job.
              Yes, I saw the line that you work in genomic research, but it seems I as a layman know more than you about it.
              "simple" as a virus (which may consist of tens to hundreds of thousands of kb pairs, specifying dozens or hundreds of RNA transcripts),
              A flu virus has roughly 100 genes ... go back to school.

          • by Zalbik (308903)

            There are experiments and research paths we do not follow because the intellectual benefit does not outweigh the very real possibilities for misuse.

            And do you have evidence that the possibility of misuse in this case outweigh the benefits?

            This research is specifically designed to gain an understanding of how viruses mutate in the wild. This is something we must know if we intend to continue on as a species. Mother nature (in her infinite wisdom), doesn't give a flying fig whether the viruses she is cont

            • And do you have evidence that the possibility of misuse in this case outweigh the benefits?

              What benefit are you exactly having in mind?
              This type of research is already going on all the time in nature.
              So nature is a mythical beast intentionally combining a fast spreading virus with the most deadly thinkable one all the time? Lucky that nature is so bad at it ...

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          The entire point of this research was to test whether we're at risk of something like the 1918 flu virus reoccurring, since the current avian flu virus is strikingly similar. This strikes me as kind of an important thing to know, since it informs almost every aspect of disease-response planning.

          I think there's a valid concern, however, in just who's holding the keys. But I'm sure they'd never, ever abuse any of these technologies.

        • seeing if the observations of similarity are a problem. Turns out they are.
          Turns out this is a no brainsr.
          Where comes the stupid attitude in american minds from that everything a scientific theory predicts, must explicitley be tested?
          When the kettle of water on the stove is boiling, I observe steam is produced. I observe the level of water in the kettle is droping. I conclude if it boils long enough the kettle will be empty. There is no fucking need to place 100 kettles of water on stoves and watch them bo

    • http://www.independent.co.uk/n... [independent.co.uk]

      http://thebulletin.org/making-... [thebulletin.org]

      Madness...as if Ebola was not enough.

    • by enjar (249223)

      people would be calling for airstrikes.

      Let's hit that lab with a high explosive, exposing the pathogen to the environment and letting it leave whatever containment it might be inside in a completely uncontrolled manner. What could possibly go wrong?

      If there was military intervention, I'd hope it was a bit more thought out than an air strike.

    • If someone does it in the US, the USA would have just yet another humanity-endangering weapon. If someone does it in Iran, it would be Iran's only one. Therefore the risk is greater that the weapon will actually be used. And if it were only used as deturrent, Iran would emerge as new power. US already has a UN security council veto chair, so there is nothing to disturb here in the world's country hierarchy.

    • by pla (258480)
      They essentially are making biological weapons in violation of international treaties, but they're saying it's all OK because it's for research?

      The difference between using explosive in mining and construction, vs using them to make a bomb, reduces to nothing more than a matter of intent.


      The hubris of thinking "it's OK, I'm a trained professional, nothing bad can happen" is mind boggling.

      Much better to naively pretend that if random microbiologist guy can do it, ISIS can't?

      IMO, only a matter of t
      • Not to mention that nature is constantly messing with genes and creating new, deadlier viruses. Knowing more about how viruses work and how to defeat them means that we'll be better protected against a superbug whether it comes from a terrorist group or from some random natural mutation.

        Not doing any research because there's a small risk of the virus escaping the lab is the equivalent of covering our eyes and assuming that a hungry carnivore can't see us because now we can't see him.

    • by radtea (464814)

      The hubris of thinking "it's OK, I'm a trained professional, nothing bad can happen" is mind boggling.

      What is mind-boggling is that anyone takes a virulently anti-science organization like the dishonestly-named "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists" seriously as a source of news about anything.

      All you have to do is look at the source, and dismiss the claims as hysteria and lies.

      This is not to say there might not be a story here, or something worth discussing, but until it is sourced from something other than an outlet for anti-science, anti-technology political shills it is all noise and no signal.

    • by HiThere (15173)

      I'm not sure that it's exactly a weapon. It's hard to control, it's hard to aim, and it's hard to keep it from attacking *you* if you use it on someone else. O, and your population doesn't have a greater immunity than does anyone else's. (Smallpox and measles were used as weapons by US settlers against the Indians...but they were *relatively* immune.)

      So I don't think it's a biological weapon. Just an insanely dangerous piece of biological research. And a good argument for a base on the moon where such

    • They essentially are making biological weapons in violation of international treaties, but they're saying it's all OK because it's for research?

      No, they are seeing what happens with certain changes that occur in viruses that are not improbably to occur in the wild (e.g. any single human that picks-up two strains of flue viruses could be the incubator for a fused variety--and the odds are actually pretty good) so that we know how to respond; I was going to write more but someone else beat me to it, http://science.slashdot.org/co... [slashdot.org]

      AND by doing this sort of work they can also develop novel methods of treatment or ideas on how to do so for viruses

      • You do know that ine counter example is enough to disprove a general claim?
        Ordinary mortals should never be taught the word "hubris", they always use it wrong/inappropriately.
        Your parent actually is that counter example, you failed to comprehend it.

  • Why should anyone take this seriously when the lede itself contains conspiracy fodder? The 2009 swiine flu outbreak started in Mexico - it wasn't some lab virus and it certainly didn't escape from China.
    • by jovius (974690)

      Yes, that "thousands of people" doesn't even appear in the referenced articles. In the referenced article [independent.co.uk] it's only speculated that IF the strain would escape from the lab there would be serious consequences. That article is about the justification of doing the said research in the first place, but also quotes the original researchers and their findings.

    • by oodaloop (1229816)
      Can there be only one pandemic in a year or something? The fantastic summary said nothing about swine flu.
      • by HiThere (15173)

        There's usually only one pandemic of flu per year, though I don't believe that there's a rule about it. However just because it killed thousands doesn't mean much when the population is as large as it is. I would guess that most people who caught it (assuming it was a pandemic) were mildly sick for a few days, some people had a bit worse case, and one in a million died of it and was counted.

        FWIW, I don't really remember the 2009 swine flu, and that's only 5 years ago, so it can't have been very noticable.

  • in 2009, a group of Chinese scientists created a viral strain of flu virus

    a viral strain of flu virus

    Well, at least it wasn't a... eukaryotic strain of flu virus?

    • by Pope (17780)

      They just mean that everyone on Twitter and Youtube shared it :D #goviral #yolo

    • by stoploss (2842505)

      Well, at least it wasn't a... eukaryotic strain of flu virus?

      Thank you. Now I don't have to post this.

  • by gurps_npc (621217) on Thursday August 14, 2014 @12:29PM (#47671183) Homepage
    Most of the time, something that is deadly is by definition NOT dangerous.

    Why? Because it kills before it spreads. That is why Ebola is not particularly scary.

    The real 'dangerous' virus kill about 20% of the time, and in the rest of the population it just makes sick - so it can be passed along to other people.

    Now, there are exceptions. Prime examples are diseases that spread by air and can also reproduce in non-humans. Another prime example is a disease with a long incubation and minimal symptoms until it kills. Aids is a good example of this. It suffers from the difficulty in transmission, but otherwise is dangerous.

    But back to the original dangerous virus. Something that kills 20% of the time, but otherwise lives in you without killing you. This is really nasty. Think of one out of every five people you know being killed by something they caught from YOU.

    • Oh my god, what an idiot are you?
      Why? Because it kills before it spreads. That is why Ebola is not particularly scary.
      Ebola is exactly the opposite. The infection is 'harmless' up to 21 days, the second half of it you are already spreading the virus. Luckily it is not very infectious, unlike flu.
      It is high infectious via body fluids when it starts to make you ill, that is roughly after 20 days ... perhaps 14.
      And: it kills slowly.

      Perhaps you should read up about some of the viruses, you mention and their way

  • not trying to create fucking deadly viruses in the first place?

  • Any of these kinds of experiments/research should be done on spacestations (or maybe deepsea-stations) where it isn't a threath to populations and enviroments.. Scientists are crazy to even try these kinds of experiments..
  • Risk vs Reward (Score:4, Insightful)

    by joocemann (1273720) on Thursday August 14, 2014 @02:56PM (#47672495)

    The inherent risks in producing excessive virulence via human synthesis, not nature, are very high. The reward of studying these types of phenomenon are very low. The virulence factors can be studied in their natural forms, or individually. Studying the impact of excessive synthetic virulence may give some useful insights, but the risks are far too high. I personally would like to see an internationally agreed ban in the following way:

    - It is illegal, and criminal, to knowingly increase the virulence of live or replicating versions of bacterial, fungal, or viral forms. Even under the most stringent biosafety level facilities and care, a deliberate increase in virulence is criminally punishable.

    As people we should hold this very serious. A person with a mere bachelor's degree in molecular biology can initiate extremely dangerous things. I am a cell biologist and I have experience in immunity and have personally engaged in the application of individual virulence factors for research purposes. I have seen what the application of even one virulence factor can do to cell immunity. I am extremely fearful of people gluing these factors together. I consider their work ego driven and not very helpful in the scope of human health research.

  • by statemachine (840641) on Thursday August 14, 2014 @04:59PM (#47673455)

    10 years ago, there were regularly 800-1000 comments on articles. Now, a highly commented article gets around 200.

    It's a shame that the editors have stopped doing their jobs and post anything without checking it (at best!). But this isn't the first time I've seen it.

    This submission is obviously false, and it needs to be pulled down or with the inflammatory and false sentence deleted. Since it's been up for hours, and there are numerous posts above that debunk the submission, it leads me to believe that Slashdot wants the clickbait and is leaving it up on purpose.

    Do the right thing. Pull the article. Save what's left of your reputation, Slashdot.

    • My guess is that the problem is that they sold out.

      Simple fact is that the type of person Slashdot used to appeal to is like 1% of the population. The moment a web site catering to 1% of the population decides to become profitable, it's faced with a choice: Continue to serve that 1%, or change your content and appeal to a different but larger 2%, and after that, change it even more and appeal to 4% of the population. Never mind that you lost that original 1%, since you're only in it for the money.

      Can't s

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