It’s like something you would expect out of a horror movie, but this story is unfortunately all true. A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – ignoring every virus-related thriller ever – created a strain of the H1N1 virus that can escape the human body and spread practically unchecked. Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka says that he wanted to study the virus so that he and his fellow researchers could get a better understanding of how viruses change in nature and, like any good thriller movie requires, he did it in a lab with a relatively low biosafety rating.
You may remember H1N1 as the virus that killed 500,000 people a few years ago, spreading panic across the globe. Most people have developed immunity to the virus, so it isn’t the terror that it once was. But Kawaoka wanted to bring the virus back to its pre-pandemic version so that he could better understand how it evolved and became pandemic in the first place. Which sounds great in theory, and may help provide valuable insight, but the level two biosafety rating in the lab seems like the sort of situation ripe for error.
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The University of Wisconsin-Madison says that there is no risk that the virus could escape and spread. And while Kawaoka acknowledges that there is risk with any research, he says that his team was careful to mitigate any potential problems. Which is exactly what you would expect the movie-professor to say just before the virus gets out into the population. Fortunately, Kawaoka’s research has been completed and he is submitting his findings to a scientific journal, so hopefully the world is now safe from the viral menace. For now.