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Nov. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Adrian Gibbs, the virologist who said in May that swine flu may have escaped from a laboratory, published his findings today, renewing discussion about the origins of the pandemic virus.
The new H1N1 strain, which was discovered in Mexico and the U.S. in April, may be the product of three strains from three continents that swapped genes in a lab or a vaccine-making plant, Gibbs, and fellow Australian scientists wrote in Virology Journal. The authors analyzed the genetic makeup of the virus and found its origin could be more simply explained by human involvement than a coincidence of nature.
The swine-origin influenza A (H1N1) virus that appeared in 2009 and was first found
in human beings in Mexico, is a reassortant with at least three parents. Six of the
genes are closest in sequence to those of H1N2 ‘triple-reassortant’ influenza viruses
isolated from pigs in North America around 1999-2000. Its other two genes are from
different Eurasian ‘avian-like’ viruses of pigs; the NA gene is closest to H1N1 viruses
isolated in Europe in 1991-1993, and the MP gene is closest to H3N2 viruses isolated
in Asia in 1999-2000. The sequences of these genes do not directly reveal the
immediate source of the virus as the closest were from isolates collected more than a
decade before the human pandemic started. The three parents of the virus may have
been assembled in one place by natural means, such as by migrating birds, however
the consistent link with pig viruses suggests that human activity was involved. We
discuss a published suggestion that unsampled pig herds, the intercontinental live pig
trade, together with porous quarantine barriers, generated the reassortant. We contrast
that suggestion with the possibility that laboratory errors involving the sharing of
virus isolates and cultured cells, or perhaps vaccine production, may have been
involved. Gene sequences from isolates that bridge the time and phylogenetic gap
between the new virus and its parents will distinguish between these possibilities, and
we suggest where they should be sought. It is important that the source of the new
virus be found if we wish to avoid future pandemics rather than just trying to
minimize the consequences after they have emerged. Influenza virus is a very
significant zoonotic pathogen. Public confidence in influenza research, and the
agribusinesses that are based on influenza’s many hosts, has been eroded by several
recent events involving the virus. Measures that might restore confidence include
establishing a unified international administrative framework coordinating
surveillance, research and commercial work with this virus, and maintaining a registry
of all influenza isolates.
It could have happened in a lab where somebody became affected and then travelled with it," virologist Dr Adrian Gibbs said yesterday.
Conjuring up a vision of Frankenstein's fictional monster fleeing the laboratory, he added: "Things do get out of labs and this has to be explored. There needs to be more research done in this area.