Scientific paper points to possible laboratory origin of swine flu

By Peter Duveen

PETER'S NEW YORK, Tuesday, November 24, 2009--A just-released scientific paper spells out the hypothesis, first suggested in the weeks following the initial outbreak of swine flu in humans in the Spring of 2009, that the flu emerged from a laboratory.

The peer-reviewed paper, published today in the Journal of Virology, analyzes the makeup of the genes of the now-famous A H1N1 virus, and concludes that, although it could possibly have come about through cross-contamination among flocks of birds or herds of swine, an equally, or perhaps more probable explanation is that it emerged from laboratories that store viruses for research or vaccine production.

The authors, Adrian J. Gibbs, John S. Armstrong and Jean C. Downie, contend they have identified three swine flu viruses as the most likely parents of the new flu. The last time these parent viruses were known to have caused disease in pigs was from ten to seventeen years ago. Each parent comes from a different continent--one from North America, another from Europe, and a third from Asia. In order for these parent viruses to have combined in nature to form the new virus, pigs would need to have breached strict quarantines designed to prevent the spread of livestock disease. But the scientists note that the European parent was never found in North America, nor the North American virus in Europe, indicating that the quarantines were effective. This, of course, begs the question of how the parent viruses got together to form the new virus.

Some scientists have suggested that the pigs were shipped internationally and violated the strict quarantines. But Gibbs and his colleagues say perhaps a more credible hypothesis is that the parent viruses were individually stored in different sections of a laboratory, or in different laboratories, and were brought together for research or in the production of a vaccine. Storage in a laboratory would also explain why the parent viruses remained undetected in pig populations for a decade or more, and then suddenly emerged as components of the new virus--they were sitting on a shelf in a laboratory refrigerator during the interim.
"Viruses," the paper notes, "do travel between laboratories in cells." The authors say additional investigative work is needed to establish which scenario is most likely. 

"The possibility that human activity may have had some role in its (the swine flu virus) origins should not be dismissed without a dispassionate analysis of all available evidence," the paper states.

The escape of a disease-causing virus from a laboratory would not be an unprecedented event, the authors contend. They note that a virus that had not been sampled since the 1950s and one that emerged in 1977 were practically identical. Had the virus been infecting humans in the interim, it would have mutated. The absence of mutations suggests that the virus had been sitting in a laboratory refrigerator during the time its presence in humans went undetected. 

The best ways to trace the origins of the new swine flu, according to Gibbs's team, is by maintaining a database of viruses and viral components from laboratories around the world, and by instituting more intense monitoring of infected animal and human populations.

The swine flu virus "has already proved to be a significant and very costly cause of mortality and morbidity in the human population," the authors note. "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."

Gibbs, lead author of the paper, achieved notoriety in May of 2009 when he was among the first in the scientific community to suggest that the virus causing the swine flu showed telltale signs of having been produced in a laboratory. Gibbs, who has some 200 scientific publications to his credit, became a familiar icon on TV screens across the globe after being interviewed about his theory by reporters and talking heads from major media outlets. The Australian professor and researcher relayed his concerns to officials at the Geneva-Switzerland-based World Health Organization (WHO), where scientists examined, but tentatively rejected, his hypothesis. A WHO official said the organization's scientists would revisit Gibbs's theory once it emerged in the scientific literature.