CDC: no plans now to send 1918 virus to other labs

Nov 11, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has no current plans to release the reconstructed version of the virus that caused the 1918 influenza pandemic to other laboratories, the head of the CDC said yesterday, but she did not rule out the possibility.

A report in Nature this week quoted CDC spokesman Von Roebuck as saying that labs that are registered to work with select agents—dangerous pathogens and toxins subject to special handling rules—could request the virus. No labs had made such a request yet, Roebuck told the magazine. The CDC classified the virus as a select agent Oct 20.

At the end of a news conference on flu vaccine supply issues yesterday, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said, "There was an unfortunate report that appeared in a media outlet today that indicated that CDC was distributing its reconstructed 1918 virus to other parts of the country for scientific investigation. I just want to set the record straight on this. CDC has no plans currently to distribute the reconstructed virus anywhere. We're working on it here in Atlanta. We have collaborations with investigators to come into our campus and work with the virus here."

She said the virus currently exists nowhere else than the CDC, which is studying it in the hope of learning more about the biology of influenza and pandemics and helping to develop better vaccines and drugs.

"We have to balance that with our overarching moral and scientific imperatives to make sure that virus is handled with the absolute best possible biocontainment and biosafety procedures," Gerberding said. "We know we can do that at CDC and we probably will be able to assure that other investigators can do likewise, but until such time as we recognize the scientific merit and the adequacy of the biosafety containment procedures, that virus is not going anywhere and it's not leaving the CDC without my express approval."

CDC scientists reconstructed the virus after a group at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) succeeded in sequencing its genome. The AFIP group had recovered fragments of the virus from preserved tissue samples from victims of the 1918 pandemic, which made the sequencing possible. The pandemic killed up to 100 million people worldwide.

Last month the CDC reported that the reassembled virus was highly lethal to mice and grew explosively in lab cultures of human lung cells. The agency handles the virus under enhanced biosafety level 3 conditions and has said that other labs with the same level of security can work with it. BSL-3 is the second highest of the four biosecurity classifications.

The Nature report says that scientists at Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg plan to work with the 1918 virus but will not request it from the CDC. Frank Plummer, the lab's scientific director, said the lab would obtain constructs containing the virus's DNA from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Using those pieces, the Winnipeg lab will be able to recreate the virus in a few days, Plummer told the magazine.

Some critics have said the 1918 virus should never have been recreated because it could cause another pandemic if it escaped, and that releasing it to other labs would compound the risk.

An unsigned editorial in Nature this week endorses research on the virus but says that sharing it with other labs would increase the risk of an accidental release. "The 1918 flu virus is hard to contain and is capable of spreading rapidly between people. The researchers who work with the reconstructed virus point out that current flu vaccines and drugs provide good protection from it—but these are in short supply, and the threat of an accidental release is real."

The writer notes that other labs could reconstruct the virus themselves by using the published genomic sequence. That removes the risk associated with mailing the virus, but "still leaves the risk of an escape from labs that work with it."

The editorial suggests working toward an international agreement governing the distribution and handling of potentially dangerous reconstructed viruses. Governments should ask the World Health Organization to look into this possibility, the writer says.

See also:

Transcript of Nov 10 CDC teleconference

Oct 21 CIDRAP News story on classification of the 1918 virus as a select agent

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