The U.S. government may have jumped the gun on banning research on superviruses, a new study suggests. Publishing in the journal Nature Communications, UW-Madison’s Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka describes a new, high-yield vaccine model that grew out of his efforts to engineer deadlier and more transmissible pathogens, which were cut short last year.
In October 2014, the government stopped funding studies attempting to make flu, SARS, and MERS even more virulent. In “gain-of-function” research, as the field is known, scientists manipulate the abilities of pathogens to study their characteristics and potential to spread — and to inform the way we respond to pandemics. Studying the ways viruses mutate and kill could lead to potential breakthroughs in vaccination and testing.
But engineering super-virulent pathogens carries obvious risks. Last year’s moratorium grew out of the fear that super-potent strains of viruses might be accidentally released into the world or, even worse, that bioterrorists might acquire them.
Dr. Kawaoka was originally studying how to engineer more potent flu and bird viruses in hopes that his findings would lead to breakthroughs in vaccination and detection. That work, which has been on hold since October of last year, helped him conceive his high-yield model for producing flu vaccines.
Currently, flu vaccines are manufactured by growing flu viruses in chicken eggs, deactivating them, and then purifying them. It’s slow and expensive, but it’s the only one we’ve got.
Kawaoka’s strategy could change all that. His expertise in virus engineering led him to figure out how to combine mutations to create strains of viruses that reproduce effectively inside cells, yielding much more virus per chicken egg.
Problem is, Kawaoka can’t continue his potentially groundbreaking work without funding. “There’s no progress because no one can work on it,” Kawaoka said in an interview with Madison.com. “At the same time, the virus is evolving in nature.”