Naked Scientists Podcast

Naked Scientists episode

Sun, 13th Dec 2009

Was Swine 'Flu Man-Made?

3D Model of an influenza virus particle. (c) CDC

Where did the 2009 H1N1 swine influenza pandemic come from? This week we hear the evidence that this new 'flu may have escaped from a laboratory. We also explore rising rates of resistance to the antiviral drug Tamiflu, hear how 'flu vaccines are made and meet a mutant 'flu strain developed by scientists to protect the population. Plus, why soy cuts cancer recurrence rates, how a case of mistaken identity spells trouble for endangered fish, a computer model for unclogging coronary arteries and in Kitchen Science Ben and Dave measure the speed of a sneeze...

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In this edition of Naked Scientists

Full Transcript

  • Sneeze 4 (c) Dave Ansell

    12:40 - How fast is a sneeze?

    This time of year coughs and sneezes are a common complaint, but just how fast is a sneeze.

  • 15:03 - Did Swine 'Flu Escape from a Laboratory?

    Where do new pandemic strains of influenza come from? Canberra-based virologist Adrian Gibbs wonders whether swine flu could have come from a laboratory...



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No, it wasn't.
Now, what's to discuss? Bored chemist, Tue, 15th Dec 2009

I listend to the podcast on the way into work this morning. I have a couple questions...

What do they do with the 100's of millions of waste eggs after they have incubated and harvested the virus?

Can investigators ever find the source of the new virus, or are we left with best educated guesses?

There was mention of genetic sequences from parents not seen for many years. Is this always as a result of a stored virus being released or can a virus mutate back to a former version of itself?

nixietube, Wed, 16th Dec 2009

Did you actually listen to the programme? chris, Wed, 16th Dec 2009

The question: "Where did the 2009 H1N1 swine flu come from?"

FROM A PIG That would be my humble opinion. OK, maybe not so HUMBLE! Ethos, Wed, 16th Dec 2009

I suggest that you listen to the programme... chris, Thu, 17th Dec 2009

I heard a lot of speculation that it might have been, but I heard no evidence that it was. Geezer, Thu, 17th Dec 2009

Geezer: see above (I suggest that you listen to the programme...)

Chris ;) chris, Thu, 17th Dec 2009

I did, and, as I said, I heard a lot of speculation that it might have been, but I heard no evidence that it was. Geezer, Fri, 18th Dec 2009

No evidence that it was is not necessarily the same as saying no evidence that it wasn't...that's the worry, to my mind. daveshorts, Fri, 18th Dec 2009

Right. In the absense of evidence it is speculation. That's my only point. Geezer, Fri, 18th Dec 2009

But there is evidence.

They've genetically sequenced it, and the 3 viruses that combined to make it were unlikely to have got together except in a lab. wolfekeeper, Fri, 1st Jan 2010

Yes. I understood that. However, that's not exactly conclusive evidence. I agree the virus could have evolved by less than natural means, but I think we need to be very careful about making suggestions of that nature without extremely robust evidence, unless we want to support yet another conspiracy theory. Geezer, Fri, 1st Jan 2010

What would you want for evidence?

(c) mad virus labs inc. ™ 2008

written in the DNA? wolfekeeper, Fri, 1st Jan 2010

Yes! That would work 

Failing that, an independent validation of the results and some solid statistical analysis of the probabilities of natural versus unnatural combinations/mutations. Perhaps that has been done already, but I didn't get that impression.

Call me an old skeptic if you like, but I've been led down the garden path too many times in the past.

Geezer, Sat, 2nd Jan 2010

Please cite your evidence for this assertion "the 3 viruses that combined to make it were unlikely to have got together except in a lab" (or was it just a personal opinion?) Bored chemist, Sat, 2nd Jan 2010

Well, according to the program the 3 viruses that combined were *pig* viruses that were last seen in North America, South East Asia and Europe.

Strangely, pigs don't fly (unlike birds that may be carrying bird flu); so how did they meet up?
wolfekeeper, Sat, 2nd Jan 2010

Actually, they do. All forms of livestock are regularly transported for breeding purposes.

Furthermore, humans jet about the planet in vast numbers. I'm not a virologist, but I would think it's not unlikely that the strains combined in a human.

BTW, I understand that pigs are greatly offended by the term "Swine Flu". They refer to H1N1 as the "Human Flu". Geezer, Sat, 2nd Jan 2010

It is always convevient to explain away new scary viruses by saying, "It is those bloody scientists again messing with stuff they don't fully understand and then releasing it to the world."
I think Geezer is correct here in that livestock are much more well travelled these days and viruses could easily be transported around. I read somewhere that it is possible to transport  the flu virus to the moon by sneezing on equipment and leaving it behind so I think we underestimate how easy it is for these viruses to meet outside the laboratory. OK, the odds are high but that doesn't mean it is impossible. Full evidence is always good. Make it Lady, Sat, 2nd Jan 2010

The other factor is that one of the viruses is one used to make vaccinations. That's also suspicious. wolfekeeper, Sun, 3rd Jan 2010

Yes. There is reason to be suspicious, and we should take steps to ensure that it's extremely difficult for viruses to escape from labs. I'm sure the controls could use a tuneup from time to time.

However, I think we should also hear the opinions from some other renowned virologists who have studied the mechanisms of communication and mutation of influenza viruses. If they agree that it is highly unlikely that H1N1 could have formed outside a lab, I would defer to their expertise.

Remember, also, that extremely virulent strains of influenza have appeared without any direct assistance from scientists (because science had no means to study viruses) and at times when there was far less opportunity for rapid transmission from one part of the Earth to another part, as is the situation today.

It's not inconceivable that the large amount of international trade and travel that exists today has helped to prevent a repeat of the horrific pandemic that occurred in 1918, through natural incremental inoculation of the World population. Geezer, Sun, 3rd Jan 2010

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