UW flu researcher details global implications of his work

Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a UW-Madison researcher whose work with dangerous influenza strains made headlines this summer, says his work is not only extremely safe, but also has important implications for global health.

Kawaoka’s research has led him to create versions of already-known avian influenza viruses that would have the potential to become global pandemics if released into the general population, he told his audience at the monthly Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon in Madison.

That research has caused international controversy multiple times, but Kawaoka said the risks are well mitigated and a necessary part of broadening global knowledge about deadly diseases.

“It’s irresponsible for us not to do the work when you can prevent [the pandemic],” Kawaoka said.

Avian flu strains make up the keystones of his work, with specific emphases on the H5N1 virus and a strain similar to the 1918 Spanish flu. His goal is to see how quickly those known and somewhat controllable strains could take a form that easily spreads between humans.

Right now, the H5N1 virus is problematic in areas of the world like Asia, but is only transmitted from birds to humans. Through his research though, he found it would only take four mutations of the current H5N1 virus to allow spreading between humans, and only seven for the “1918- like” virus to do the same.

Research like that, although alarming to some who fear the strains could escape testing labs, is important to show health officials which vaccinations would work against such outbreaks were those mutations to happen naturally, according to Kawaoka.

The mutations represent new versions of influenza strains human bodies have not been conditioned to fight. The 1918 influenza strain that killed 40 million people would have little effect today because of available vaccines and exposure to the seasonal flu, but mutations like the ones Kawaoka is testing could wipe out a similar amount of people if not preempted.

However, he said his research could allow governments to have access to information outlining which specific vaccines can combat different strains of influenza people may eventually encounter in different parts of the world. Building a stockpile is important, Kawaoka said, but building the right one is the most important.

Kawaoka also gave a detailed account of the safety precautions present at his lab while such research is happening. His lab operates under the second strictest cautionary system for research in the country and has a long list of redundancies built into its infrastructure, including two filters, sterilization tanks, power systems and air handlers in case any single one fails. Federal representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Department of Agriculture also do spontaneous in-person assessments of the lab and every person on the lab staff must have Federal Bureau of Investigation clearance.

“There is no such thing as zero risk,” Kawaoka said, “but we can mitigate the risk.”

He ended his speech with a brief overview of his research up to this point on another issue gaining international headlines, the Ebola virus.

So far, he has created a potential vaccine by extracting the gene that tells the active virus to multiply and has run several successful tests on non-human primates. The experiments have shown the vaccine, when administered in two doses, is highly effective even against the most deadly Ebola strains.

His problem now is that he has run out of funding for the project and cannot do further tests to potentially make the vaccine an option for humans. The money drought is a combination of the government’s inconsistent funding as well as the ebb and flow of interest in diseases like Ebola over the last 10 years, according to Kawaoka.

It is not a problem limited to only Ebola and the researcher compared his current problems with those he has when donating organizations and the government will only give him money for a hyper-specific study into influenza that may not go the necessary depth into providing helpful answers.

“Toward the end of the fiscal year [the government] is pouring money into the research community to show [it] is supporting,” Kawaoka said. “That support needs to continue.”

— By Jack Casey

File photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison