Here's today's must-read. Via Scientific American, Helen Branswell writes: Bio-Unsafety Level 3: Could the Next Lab Accident Result in a Pandemic? Excerpt:
There had to be a sinking feeling in the chest of every researcher who works in a high-containment research laboratory last Friday when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its report on three worrisome incidents that raised safety questions at two well-respected government facilities. But it is likely the sensation was most acute for the influenza scientists who work in a controversial field known as gain-of-function research.
On Friday Director Tom Frieden revealed that someone in the CDC's influenza division had accidentally contaminated a vial of a relatively mild bird flu virus with the worst one known, H5N1. The Atlanta-based CDC then shipped the vial to unsuspecting researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory up the road in Athens, Ga., who used its contents to infect some unlucky chickens.
There is no suggestion the unfortunate event was anything other than human error, and no one—except the chickens—was made ill as a result of the mistake. But the fact that it happened, and could happen again, has given valuable ammunition to a group of scientists who have been arguing for the past couple of years that gain-of-function work on influenza viruses is too dangerous to undertake.
Such studies take flu viruses found in nature and, in essence, try to make them more dangerous. The aim is to see what it would take for viruses like H5N1, which currently rarely infect people, to gain the ability to easily transmit to and among us. Coughs and sneezes propel human flu viruses through populations, and scientists have found that by adding mutations and passing viruses from ferret to ferret enough times, they can push bird viruses to spread that way among the animals, which often stand in for people in flu research.
The stated scientific aim for such experiments is to speed up the detection of naturally occurring viruses that might acquire these more dangerous skills in the wild. But the end result is the formation of nasty pathogens with the potential to trigger disastrous flu pandemics if they were ever to escape the confines of the labs. After all, in its wild form H5N1 kills about 60 percent of the people it infects.
Ron Fouchier, a Dutch virologist who is one of the biggest names in gain-of-function research, believes the CDC accident is going to make life more difficult for all those working on dangerous pathogens, not just those in the gain-of-function field. “When incidents like this happen, it’s going to be bad for all of us,” says Fouchier, who is based at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam.
These studies are done in so-called biosafety level (BSL) 3-enhanced labs, which have layers of safeguards in place to keep unauthorized people out and pathogens in as well as to ensure lab workers do not become infected in the course of their work. These precautions are there to protect the lab workers, obviously.
But they are also there to protect the public by making sure that the researchers and technicians do not serve as unwitting carriers who wind up spreading these germs once they leave the lab. Indeed, the Erasmus scientists who work with Fouchier on H5N1 gain-of-function work are among a very few people on Earth to have been vaccinated against the bird flu virus, although that is not true of all flu scientists doing this type of research.
Fouchier insists this work should be done and can be done safely. “I would really doubt that these things would happen in my laboratory,” he says of the CDC incident. “But of course I understand that the director of CDC would have said the same thing.”
Still, he knows critics of the field will hold up this incident as proof that even the best of laboratories are subject to human error, because the CDC flu lab is considered among the best in the world.