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Australian Virus Researcher Says Swine Flu May have Escaped from a Lab

lab.accident

Bloomberg is reporting that The World Health Organization (WHO) is examining a study of the swine flu virus by Adrian Gibbs, a respected researcher whose work contributed to the development of the flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza.

Adrian Gibbs, 75, who collaborated on research that led to the development of Roche Holding AG’s Tamiflu drug, said in an interview that he intends to publish a report suggesting the new strain may have accidentally evolved in eggs scientists use to grow viruses and drugmakers use to make vaccines. Gibbs said he came to his conclusion as part of an effort to trace the virus’s origins by analyzing its genetic blueprint.

“One of the simplest explanations is that it’s a laboratory escape,” Gibbs said in an interview with Bloomberg Television today. “But there are lots of others.”

[….]

Gibbs and two colleagues analyzed the publicly available sequences of hundreds of amino acids coded by each of the flu virus’s eight genes. He said he aims to submit his three-page paper today for publication in a medical journal.

WHO is taking Gibbs’ research seriously and has asked other experts to look into Gibbs’ hypothesis. Meanwhile, Nancy Cox, head of the CDC’s flu division has already decided that Gibbs’ claims are nonsense. Gee, I hope she’s sure of herself. Gibbs doesn’t sound like a crackpot to me. According to Gibbs’ biography (PDF),

His 39-year career at [Australian National University] (John Curtin School of Medical Research 1966-1970; Research School of Biological Sciences 1971-1999; School of Botany and Zoology 2000-2005) was busy and resulted in authorship/co-authorship of over 250 publications; mostly research papers but also books and networked publicationsawas translated into both Russian and Mandarin Chinese.

Throughout his career he has worked to understand the origins and evolution of viruses. This has involved understanding their identification, ecology and host interactions. He pioneered the storage and manipulation of virus data, first as co-founder of the Descriptions of Plant Viruses, then, using computers, founded the Virus Identification and Data Exchange (VIDE) database which became the first component of the database of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses.

Science Insider is reporting that that many flu experts are dismissing Gibbs’ hypothesis out of hand, seemingly without actually examining the evidence. Gibbs apparently knew someone at WHO, and was able to get a hearing there.

As Gibbs explained to ScienceInsider, the latest outbreak led him to scour the public databases and compare the genes of the recently discovered A (H1N1) virus—which is a mix of swine, avian, and human influenzas—with its closest ancestors. He confirmed, as others have reported, that six of the eight genes appeared to come from North America and two others came from Eurasia, which suggested to him that there were two parental viruses that had “reassorted” (fluspeak for combined)….

Gibbs says he discovered that the virus’s eight genes had evolved at a much more rapid pace than expected. Basically, he calculated this by looking at the known mutation rates of influenza viruses and comparing the changes in the new strain with the changes in its closest relatives. “It’s clear that all eight genes have speeded up for the last 7 years,” says Gibbs. “That struck me as really, really strange.” He could imagine how one parental strain might do this. “But how in the heck do two viruses do it?” he asks.

Perusing Google, Gibbs found a possible explanation. “I bumped into an advertisement for an influenza vaccine for pigs that contained three different viruses,” he says. The vaccine was supposed to contain killed versions of the virus, but what if there had been a lab accident and some had survived? Specifically, both human and pig vaccine manufacturers use eggs to grow the viruses, and Gibbs notes that studies have shown that this odd avian environment can accelerate their evolution. If these viruses were not properly killed, they could have reassorted in a pig and created the new H1N1 strain. “Not killing off the virus could explain the whole thing very neatly, but it’s only one of several possibilities,” Gibbs says.

What can I say? I’m no biologist, but this sounds interesting to me. If researchers could find the source of the virus, it seems like it might be easier to develop a vaccine. But I’m sure the labs that could be affected by this are going to fight to the death to prevent this from being investigated too thoroughly.

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29 Responses

  1. I’m in a Twilight Zone frame of mind these days. It must be the insane work schedule and nearly total lack of sleep. I’m running strictly on adrenaline and we old menopausal ladies don’t have as much of that as the young folks.

    • 😆 But, but, some times people are trying to get us. 😯

      I believe the Australian and am totally open to hearing his findings. One thing for sure, we learned that their ‘pandemic plan’ is short on supplies. My main shipment started arriving five days ago.

      Many in the health field were issued ‘one’ mask for the H1N1.

      • It makes sense to me, but what do I know? Isn’t this the wrong time of year for a flu outbreak?

        • Yup, I think this scientist is on to some thing. I haven’t gotten any numbers as to the infection rate, and the news all but stopped reporting on it, right after Biden did his panic alert.

          V.P. Biden: I Told Family To Avoid Planes, Subway Over Swine Flu

  2. Adrian Gibbs – Bloomberg Interview (May 13, 2009)

    BB,

    I found a video of the interview with Dr. Gibbs.

  3. What do you say when you accidently let a virus out of a lab: Oopsie.

  4. The genes — those are the clues — follow the foot prints.

    I’ll wait until researchers with an OPEN MIND — review these theories and also look at the genes.

    The timing was fishy — and then there is that “aid” of the prez who infected his family. Say — HUH???

    Gibbs has an impressive resume — he is a problem solver — he is a critical thinker.

    • As Gibbs said in his interviews, science is about putting your ideas out there and getting responses from other scientists. At his age, he’s not afraid to take the flack for proposing something controversial.

  5. Good catch BB-articles like this are why I read TC!

    Laxity in following procedures seems to have become endemic in many fields.

  6. Adrian Gibbs has a history of not shying away from controversial issues – like his claim that transgenic plants engineered for plant virus resistance using virus genes would lead to recombination among the very viruses they were supposed to defend against and possible emergence of novel pathogens – but he is also a very eminent scientist who is an expert in the field of virus evolution.

    Arthur C Clarke said it best, in his 1st Law:
    “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong”.

    Adrian Gibbs is both elderly and distinguished. He hasn’t said anything is impossible here….

    Personally, as a virologist myself, I am amazed that there is so much animal influenza vaccine development going on: flu viruses are very transmissible; if one got out of the lab, or if a vaccine was insufficiently inactivated…it could explain everything.

    Just like the 1977 H1N1 outbreak – strongly suspected to come from a USSR biowar lab.

  7. This is rocking feature, I am looking for this from times.

  8. I was suspicious from the start knowing the history of these drug companies. I actually said ‘here comes a big money maker in the form of vaccine sales’.

  9. Sorry to be a wet blanket here, but I can understand why the researchers are rejecting Gibbs’ claims out of hand.

    Looking at genetic diversity and deducing relationships is what I do professionally. That’s actually my specialty. Gibbs is a virologist, and I suspect he may not be up on the fine points of cladistic analysis. Especially when dealing with viruses, it’s very easy to be misled by chance matches among sequences because they do evolve so fast. As to why the rate has suddenly speeded up, I can think of one alternative hypothesis off the top of my head: over the last few years, antivirals — like the very tamiflu he helped invent — have come into wide use. That would do it all by itself.

    But the main reason people are pooh-poohing the lab escape idea is that the epidemiology would be different. The epidemic would not have started in rural Mexico near a huge pig farm. It would have started in Atlanta near the CDC or wherever the relevant labs are.

    Viruses are very good at grabbing bits of DNA. it’s what they do for a living. So you don’t necessarily need live virus for genetic transfer. Dead virus could supply genetic code snippets to a live one that’s infected the same organism. That could happen simply due to ordinary, non-conspiratorial vaccination. Personally, I’d rather have flu vaccines + potential recombination, rather than flu disease + potential recombination. The recombination is going to happen either way.

    I could go on. But my take home message is: take Gibbs with a large dose of salt until a whole lot more information comes in.

    • I thought I was taking it with a grain of salt. Did my post sound enthused or something? WHO is investigating. To me that makes it news.

    • I take it this is the one you are writing about. OK? Well, OK…you are a ‘smarty’ OK! Got it! Have one of you in the family…but I read too, to keep in the game (family chats as they run circles around me) and ya know, there are other labs in the US besides in Atlanta.

      The lab is one of the country’s five biosafety labs that are Level-IV, the highest level. Such laboratories typically handle pathogens like smallpox, tularemia and anthrax to develop vaccines and antidotes.
      http://www.semp.us/publications/biot_reader.php?BiotID=544

      Full Quote with a with the example of having to destroy samples.

      On Friday, September 12, 2008, at 11:07 p.m. EDT, as Hurricane Ike approached Galveston as a direct hit, CNN reporter Jeanne Meserve wrote,

      Workers at a Galveston, Texas, laboratory said to contain dangerous biological agents secured the pathogens Friday ahead of Hurricane Ike, officials said. The pathogens, which include the deadly Ebola virus, were purposely destroyed before the staff left the facility in advance of the hurricane, said [Texas] Governor Rick Perry’s spokesman, Andrew Barlow…The lab is one of the country’s five biosafety labs that are Level-IV, the highest level. Such laboratories typically handle pathogens like smallpox, tularemia and anthrax to develop vaccines and antidotes. The laboratory followed protocols for shutting, said Gretchen Michael, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She said that for security reasons, she would not detail the procedures or describe the agents. A Department of Homeland Security official concurred that all the samples had been destroyed, and the building was locked down, quarantined and “rendered safe.” But a former student who worked at the Level-III laboratory while the Level-IV facility was being constructed and who knows the manager, said she would be surprised if all of the pathogens had been destroyed, since some of them are rare and extremely valuable. The facility is the World Health Organization’s center for research on arboviruses, such as ticks and mosquitoes, and tropical disease work, said the student, who asked not to be identified. It also holds Ebola virus and fever-causing Lassa virus, sometimes-fatal hantaviruses and anthrax bacteria, she said. She added that all Level-IV laboratories are designed to ensure they can withstand hurricanes, and because of its location, special care was taken with the laboratory in Galveston. “I know that everyone at that facility, every single person at that facility, I’m certain has done everything they could possibly do to ensure that the community and the facility is absolutely safe, because all the people that work there, their livelihood and careers are dependent on the things that are held in that lab, and they would be destroyed — just as much as the community would be destroyed — if anything were to happen,” she said. CDC spokesman Von Roebuck said only that ‘quite a bit has been done’ to secure the laboratory. (17)

      OK, my guess is you are in one of the five. 😉

    • Man Caught At Canadian Border Carrying Ebola Virus Gene

      Hemmm? What say you?

  10. The numbers on the infection rate that I saw recently on the BBC (I think) is that they expect about 30% of the people who come in contact with H1N1 to get the flu.

    The mortality rate, so far, has not been very different from ordinary seasonal flu, but as riverdaughter pointed out in her post a few days ago, it’ll spend the next few months mutating. When it comes back in the fall, it could still be just another flu, or it could be worse.

    • (Woman voter: I was trying to reply to your comment. I don’t know why mine keep sorting in as being earlier. 😦 !)

      • Because, you are a head of your time. 😉

      • Any hoo…I recall a doctor telling us as students about the survival of people (when AIDS was first on the scene) and how we would survive. I have a friend that is in the science field like you (Ph.D), and essentially said the same thing but years later. He works with a very prominent scientist in an IVY League school… So, I was surprised to hear this from your fellow scientifico:

        Remarks by Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO director-general: “Influenza pandemics must be taken seriously, precisely because of their capacity to spread rapidly to every country in the world. For the first time in history we can track the evolution of a pandemic in real time. Influenza viruses are notorious for their rapid mutation and unpredictable behaviour. All countries should immediately now activate their pandemic preparedness plans. Countries should remain on high alert for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia….Based on assessment of all available information and following several expert consultations, I have decided to raise the current level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to phase 5. This change to a higher phase of alert is a signal to governments, to ministries of health and other ministries, to the pharmaceutical industry and the business community that certain actions now should be undertaken with increased urgency and at an accelerated pace.”

        Maybe you should have briefed dear Ole VP there. 😯

  11. Why would they simply ignore this mans findings? He is a very respected researcher and author, so why in the hell wouldn’t they read his findings before calling them bullshit?
    I frankly believe him, and I think the medical community needs to take a closer look at what he has found, what could it hurt?

  12. This man has a very long life in science, but I think that he is following his feeling. I think that a natural kitchen for a virus combined from pigs, birds and humans is a local with pig farms, natural lakes and poor people working for the big farmers. You can found that in Ohio, the basin of Misissipi river and in Puebal and Veracruz Mexico.

  13. Folks: sorry not to get back earlier re USSR H1N1 flu escape; it is pretty much accepted generally in virological circles that that is what happened:

    “When antigenic and molecular characterization of this virus showed that both the HA and NA antigens were remarkably similar to those of the 1950s, this finding had profound implications. Where had the virus been that it was relatively unchanged after 20 years? If serially (and cryptically) transmitted in humans, antigenic drift should have led to many changes after two decades. Reactivation of a long dormant infection was a possibility, but the idea conflicted with what was known of the biology of the virus, in which a latent phase has not been found. Had the virus been in a deep freeze? This was a disturbing thought because it implied concealed experimentation with live virus, perhaps in a vaccine. Delayed mutation and consequent evolutionary stasis in an animal host were not unreasonable, but in what host? And if a full-blown epidemic did originate, it would be the first to do so in the history of modern virology, and a situation quite unlike the contemporary situation with H5N1 and its protracted epizootic phase. Thus, the final answer to the 1977 epidemic is not yet known.”

    http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/ops/hsc-scen-3_pandemic-1977.htm

    As for Gibbs and his phylogenetic analysis: sorry, Quixote, but Adrian has been doing this a LOOOONG time – and flu is and RNA virus and does not pick up bits of DNA. Tamiflu and Relenza (oseltamivir and ranamavir) are also not used in pigs – so the flu genes that came out of them would most certainly not have been selected by antivirals.

    I’m not saying he’s right – but it is food for thought, and if ANY evidence is found suggesting it is possible, then the way pigs are intensively farmed needs to be reviewed – globally.

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