Wisconsin researcher creates world’s most deadly virus (5X8 – 12/21/11)

The secrets of Madison, NPR and coverage of Catholics, no transplants for noncitizens, the morning broadcaster, and what’s really happening in those Christmas card scenes.


1) THE SECRETS OF MADISON

The “bird flu” virus does not easily spread to humans. So scientists taught it how, and in so doing have created what may be the most dangerous virus in the world. On, Wisconsin!

A University of Wisconsin researcher apparently created the virus in his lab, but we can’t find out why. Yoshihiro Kawaoka is an expert on bird flu. That much we know for sure. But the government is urging two science journals to make changes to the manuscripts about the research, apparently because it’s concerned the virus — or information about it — could fall into the wrong hands.

The research concluded that the H5N1 virus has “greater potential than previously believed to gain a dangerous capacity to be transmitted among mammals, including perhaps humans, and describe some of the genetic changes that appear to correlate with this potential,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

UW spokesman Terry Devitt said he couldn’t discuss the nature of the virus because it would “compromise Kawaoka’s work.”

BioPrepWatch.com notes other researchers think developing the new virus is a bad idea:


In an editorial published by the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the leaders of the facility expressed concern about the research.

“Publishing the methods for transforming the H5N1 virus into a highly transmissible strain would show other scientists around the world how to do it in their own labs,” the editorial said, according to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. “One concern is the possibility that the strain would be recreated for malevolent purposes. Even disregarding this risk (which we shouldn’t), scientific publication would encourage others that this is a research initiative worthy of additional exploration. . . . Whether this experiment is published or not, it is a reminder of the power of biology and its potential. We need new approaches for the rapid development of large quantities of medicines or vaccines to protect us against new emerging viruses. But engineering highly transmissible strains of avian flu is not the way to get us there.”

WebMD is asking questions, the answers to which none of us have a prayer of ever getting…


Did the deadly mutant version of bird flu really have to be made? Do the details really have to be made public? And would censoring those details really stop anyone from duplicating this relatively simple experiment? And what if one of those ferrets got loose?

“I can’t think of another pathogenic virus as scary as this one,” NSABB chairman Paul Keim, PhD, told ScienceInsider. “I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”

But Foreign Policy magazine says these are the wrong questions because other labs already know how it was done:


As a practical matter, experimental results are now shared with lightning speed between laboratories, and I know that several leading scientists outside Fouchier’s and Kawaoka’s labs already recognize exactly how these experiments were executed. The genie is out of the bottle: Eager graduate students in virology departments from Boston to Bangkok have convened journal-review debates reckoning exactly how these viral Frankenstein efforts were carried out.

The correct questions that scientists, national security and political leaders, and the public ought to be asking are: How difficult was it to perform these experiments? Could they be replicated in the hands of criminals or would-be terrorists? What have these experiments shown us about the likelihood that the H5N1 “bird flu” virus will naturally evolve into this terrifying form? Are we safer, or less secure, today due to the post-2001 anthrax-inspired proliferation of high-security biological laboratories?

2) NPR AND THE COVERAGE OF CATHOLICS

“When anything is mentioned on NPR concerning religion, it seems that the only religion mentioned is the Catholic religion,” Jim Mundy of Florida wrote to NPR recently. It’s a recurring theme in many newsrooms: What does the media have against Catholics?

So NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos did some research and writes that Catholics aren’t the most-often-mentioned religion in news stories. They’re not even the second-most-mentioned religion in news stories. Or the third.

He writes on his blog:


This also means that the Catholic church is the largest single denomination in the country. Because of its unity and hierarchy, moreover, its impact as a social and political force, as well as a spiritual one, is even more considerable. The church’s huge network of universities, schools and charities are heavily involved in the intellectual, cultural and humanitarian direction of the country. This is in addition to the church’s historical role at the root of Western culture. Moreover, the Catholic Church in recent years has been the subject of a great deal of news coverage, much of it unfavorable, from the sexual abuses by some priests to emotional battles over the closing of local churches.

One could compare the number of stories about Catholicism with other denominations, atheism, humanitarian groups and the like, but I don’t think the exercise would produce more than a lot of meaningless precision. To me, it comes down to a rough average of three stories a month mentioning a church to which at least a quarter of all Americans belong, and which is a force in national life. That hardly seems to me to be excessive, despite the numerous stories last month about the church’s new liturgy.

3) NO TRANSPLANT FOR YOU

If you are in the United States illegally, your organs can be “harvested” when you die. But you can’t get a transplanted organ if you need one. A study estimates that noncitizens donate 2.5 of organs in the U.S., and receive only about 1 percent. The New York Times today examines the issue with the story of a waiter in need of a kidney. The government will foot the bill for a lifetime of dialysis that costs $75,000 a year, but not for a transplant, which would be cheaper.

Many doctors are waiving their fees for transplants, but hospitals are rejecting the patients. “Personally, I’m troubled by it,” said Dr. Sander Florman, who directs the Recanati/Miller Transplantation Institute at Mount Sinai. “We’re looking at human beings.”

“If they’re dead, I don’t have an objection to their organs being used,” Mr. Rohrabacher added. “If they’re alive, they shouldn’t be here no matter what,” Dana T. Rohrabacher, R-Calif., told the paper.

4) GOOD MORNING, MADISON!

I come from the world of commercial broadcasting, although I’ve now spent more time in public radio than commercial radio. But the commercial radio of my past is gone. Or is it? Boyd Huppert’s story about a broadcaster in tiny Madison, Minnesota contained this sobering statistic: Of 350 radio stations in the state, just 21 are still stand-alone, locally owned and operated stations.

But, man, some of the few that are left are great!

5) WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON IN THOSE CHRISTMAS CARD SCENES

Bonus: A sleigh ride, Minnesota version.

TODAY’S QUESTION

The House’s refusal to accept the Senate’s two-month extension of the payroll tax cut has left the two sides blaming each other and taxpayers facing a tax increase next month. Today’s Question: What’s the solution to Washington gridlock?

WHAT WE’RE DOING

Midmorning (9-11 a.m.) – First hour: The environmental and economic debates surrounding frac mining.

Second hour: Singer/actor T. Mychael Rambo.

Midday (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) – First hour: Climatologist Mark Seeley on the first day of winter.

Second hour: Author Lisa See from Hennepin County Library’s Talk of the Stacks.

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: Political issues.

Second hour: The culture of band hazing. Plus, Turkey’s neighbors include Syria, Iraq and Iran.

  • http://www.skyseastone.net/jvstin Paul (@princejvstin)

    When the next pandemic does come, research such as Kawaoka’s will be useful in trying to find a vaccine.

    Yes, its dangerous knowledge, but its more dangerous *not* to know.

  • Pat Fair

    #3: No Transplant for You

    Merry Christmas Mr. Rohrabacher.

    Will you be attending a faith service

    of some sort?

  • Jim

    The call by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to censor the work of Fouchier and Kawaoka in their Science publications is straight out of the TSA ‘security theater’ handbook.

    Any competent microbiology grad student could figure out the process used to create, and replicate, the infectious H5N1 strains just from the press releases. Censoring the publications won’t really protect anyone, but it sure sounds pro-active!

    As Paul suggested, identifying the genes which would make H5N1 more infectious will allow other labs to work on targeted treatments before the problem (potentially) emerges.

    Kudos to Fouchier and Kawaoka for their efforts.

  • Bob Collins

    It’s pretty fascinating, though, that in order to prevent a deadly plague, we first have to create the virus that would cause it.

  • Joe Busch

    Knowledge is preferred to ignorance.