The Dangers (and Benefits) of Designing Mutant Super Viruses

Take an already deadly flu virus like H1N1—killer of an estimated 284,000 people—and imagine how to make it worse. How about a virus impossible for your immune system to detect? This is not just a thought experiment—a controversial Wisconsin lab known for concocting dangerous mutant viruses has actually created such an immune-evading H1N1 virus.

What's the deal with this scary research reminiscent of sci-fi scenarios that go terribly wrong? Let's take a walk through what happened.

A Recent History of Mutant Viruses

If you read up on your mutant virus research—it's OK, we'll summarize—you'll see one name come up over and over again: Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Kawaoka's lab specializes in studying the viruses behind influenza and Ebola. Controversially, it has on multiple occasions mutated viruses to make them more deadly than in nature.

The latest, as reported by this week by The Independent, is an immune-evading H1N1, popularly known as swine flu. The mutations Kawaoka's lab have developed alter certain proteins on the virus that our immune cells use to recognize it as H1N1, making existing immunity to the virus moot.

Earlier this month, Kawaoka's lab published a study recreating a virus similar to the 1918 Spanish flu that killed millions of people around the world—a study one top scientist condemned as "absolutely crazy" and "exceedingly dangerous" for obvious reasons.

And in 2012, Kawaoka's lab was one of two behind the controversial mutant avian flu papers, which showed how just a few mutations could make the bird flu more transmissible. He's run a mighty productive lab, and a 2006 Nature Medicine profile marveled at how he never seems to eat or sleep, devoted to his research battling epidemics. Admirable, but more than a little scary when you're hanging around so many super viruses.

Why Make Dangerous Mutant Viruses Anyway?

So why would you do this, other than being a super villain? The argument for this controversial research goes like this. Viruses evolve in nature. In fact, they're really, really good at gaining mutations. That's why the seasonal flu vaccine has to be rejiggered every year, and, in part, why you'll get the flu multiple times in your life. Occasionally, a mutation—or five or fifty—will come along to create a virus far deadlier than before. Suddenly it can jump from birds to humans or it can escape detection by your immune system. It's at this point that virus-smiths pose a simple question: Isn't it better to anticipate these changes rather than be caught unprepared?

In his 1918 flu project proposal to the National Institutes of Health, which funded that study, Kawaoka writes:

Our long-term goal is to understand the likelihood of the emergence of 1918-like pandemic influenza viruses, and the mechanisms that accounted for the unprecedented virulence of the 1918 pandemic influenza virus. Such knowledge will help us to prepare for future influenza pandemics and to quickly recognize influenza virus strains with pandemic potential.

Sounds like it'll be great! Right until it's not.

Yeah, So Maybe We Shouldn't

If you have half an ounce of caution inside you, the answer is pretty obvious: the virus could escape. Or be intentionally released by terrorists. Ironically, our research efforts aimed at preventing a catastrophic epidemic could end up causing it.

But what's worse is that this fear isn't entirely hypothetical. In 1977, an H1N1 strain that had disappeared for decades suddenly appeared again. Because it was genetically identical to one isolated in 1950, scientists concluded it probably came from a laboratory freezer. And there are many smaller accidents: smallpox in 1978, foot and mouth virus in 2007, and SARS in 2004. And numerous accidental exposures, like anthrax at a government lab in Atlanta just earlier this month.

As with all research, we have to balance the risks and benefits. A blanket condemnation of all virus tinkering will definitely hinder science, so it makes sense to consider it on case by case basis: How risky is this particular mutation? What benefit can we really derive from making it in a live virus versus safer techniques like molecular modeling? Does the knowledge we gain actually help us? So far, it's hard to say any of these mutant viruses have necessarily helped us, but this line of research is also quite new.

After the controversial mutant bird flu papers in 2012, the U.S. put in new guidelines for risky research. And institutions where the research is performed review the risks involved, too. It's unclear, though exactly how much oversight was involved in Kawaoka's most recent H1N1 study. One member of the biosafety committee at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told the Independent he was not aware of the most troubling details of Kawaoka's work.

What's Next?

Kawaoka's research is not yet published yet, though the Independent reports he is ready to submit it to scientific journal. That could spark another round of controversy. When the mutant bird flu papers were in press in 2011, a U.S. biosafety panel recommended they not be published—and then later reversed course after new information came to light.

Whether to make dangerous mutant viruses and whether to then publish the protocol in a scientific journal are two different, albeit conjoined, issues. Publishing opens up a whole new can of worms related to terrorism. It's one thing for a mutant virus to accidentally escape a lab—it's another for labs to replicate them for nefarious reasons. When the mutant flu papers were finally published, however, they were revealed to be somewhat less dangerous than the most fevered speculation that bubbled up during many months of hype.

Most of the details about Kawaoka's latest mutated H1N1 virus are still unknown, but this is only the latest in a string of controversial studies. I can only hope institutional checks were in place, and it's not really as dangerous as it sounds. May our future epidemics not be man-made.

Top image: Students in Indian during the H1N1 pandemic. AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade