© The Independent, UK
Scientists express horror over the creation of a virus that could render the human immune system defenceless.
A controversial scientist who carried out provocative research on making influenza viruses more infectious has completed his most dangerous experiment to date by deliberately creating a pandemic strain of flu that can evade the human immune system.
Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has genetically manipulated the 2009 strain of pandemic flu in order for it to "escape" the control of the immune system's neutralising antibodies, effectively making the human population defenceless against its reemergence.
Most of the world today has developed some level of immunity to the 2009 pandemic flu virus, which means that it can now be treated as less dangerous "seasonal flu". However, The Independent
understands that Professor Kawaoka intentionally set out to see if it was possible to convert it to a pre-pandemic state in order to analyse the genetic changes involved.
The study is not published, however some scientists who are aware of it are horrified that Dr Kawaoka was allowed to deliberately remove the only defence against a strain of flu virus that has already demonstrated its ability to create a deadly pandemic that killed as many as 500,000 people in the first year of its emergence.
Professor Kawaoka has so far kept details of the research out of the public domain but admitted today that the work is complete and ready for submission to a scientific journal. The experiment was designed to monitor the changes to the 2009 H1N1 strain of virus that would enable it to escape immune protection in order to improve the design of vaccines, he said.
"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 immunity," Professor Kawaoka said in an email.
"Viruses in clinical isolates have been identified that have these same changes in the [viral protein]. This shows that escape viruses emerge in nature and laboratory studies like ours have relevance to what occurs in nature," he said.