Experts Dismiss Pig Flu Scare as Nonsense

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   Experts Dismiss Pig Flu Scare as Nonsense
   It could be the result of an embarrassing lab should be thoroughly investigated, because WSN’s presence. Both Peiris and Kawaoka
   escape or a vaccine study gone awry; it could WSN/33, which infects mice’s brains, is dis- declined to comment for this story, but
   even be the smoking gun from a secret tantly related to the 1918 pandemic virus, Stöhr says the results from the Kawaoka lab
   biowarfare program.                               and if it infects pigs, it may infect humans as will be out soon. The Korean National Vet-
       But then, it could be nothing at all.         well. That’s why he immediately alerted erinary and Quarantine Services also told
       For 4 months now, a series of strange WHO in December.                                        Science it has been unable to replicate the
   influenza sequences has been sitting in              But WHO is unimpressed. The agency findings, despite testing hundreds of pigs.
   GenBank, the U.S. National Institutes of discussed Niman’s claims by e-mail with its                  Molecular biologist and flu expert Ron
   Health’s DNA database, that seems to suggest flu advisers in December, says Klaus Stöhr, Fouchier of Erasmus University Medical Cen-
   that pigs in South Korea have become WHO’s global influenza coordinator. They ter in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, says the
   infected with a flu strain used for research in quickly concluded that the results were lab sequences definitely contain WSN’s genetic
   labs around the world but not known to occur contamination. Such mix-ups can happen signature. But he says the fact that the six con-
   in nature. The World Health Organization easily when researchers use the polymerase troversial isolates have varying numbers of
   (WHO) in Geneva has dismissed the snippets chain reaction to amplify bits of genetic WSN fragments points to lab contamination:
   as the result of a lab error. But the Korean sci- material, says Robert Webster of St. Jude “If this was an endemic pig virus, I’d expect all
   entist who posted them insists they are real— Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, viruses to have the same WSN gene segments.”
   and troubling—and he is hoping that two Tennessee, one of Stöhr’s advisers. Conta-                    Even if WSN were circulating in
   renowned flu labs will prove him right.           mination was likely, says Webster, because Korean pigs, Stöhr says, that wouldn’t spell
       Meanwhile, speculation about the case has Seo had previously received WSN/33 from disaster. There’s no evidence that WSN is
   been fueled relentlessly on the Internet by an Webster’s own lab. (Seo also worked at still dangerous to humans, he says; indeed,
   outsider to the influenza world. Henry Webster’s lab between 1999 and 2002, and Fouchier adds, many labs use it without
   Niman, the president of a Pittsburgh, Pennsyl- the two published seven papers together.)          taking special safety precautions.
   vania–based company called Recombi-                  But in an interview, Seo                                                Determined to
   nomics and the operator of a mailing list denied ever having received                                                     draw attention to the
   about flu, believes that the virus, called the WSN/33 from Memphis                                                        case, Niman, who has
   WSN/33, poses a grave danger to human or anywhere else. What’s                                                            also criticized WHO
   health. Recently, his views                                                                                               extensively for its
   have begun to draw atten-                                                                                                 handling of the severe
   tion—much to the chagrin of                                                                                               acute respiratory syn-
   those scientists who think the                                                                                            drome and avian
   whole story is nonsense.                                                                                                  influenza outbreaks,
       The bizarre case started on                                                                                           has posted more than
   24 October when Sang Heui                                                                                                 50 messages about
   Seo, a researcher at Chung-                                                                                               the case on his site
   nam National University in                                                                                       since December, with some
   Daejeon, deposited in                                                                                            success: Infectious-disease
   GenBank partial RNA                                                                                              specialist Laurie Garrett of the
   sequences from a series of                                                                                       Foreign Relations Council in
   viruses isolated from pigs.                                                                                      New York City wrote about the
   Niman, a molecular biologist                                                                                     case in an online article on
   and former Harvard surgery                                                                                       16 February—although she
   instructor with an intense                                                                                       dismissed it as a “scary near-
   interest in virus evolution, dis-                                                                                miss”—and last week, Nature
   covered them soon after they                                                                                     reported Niman’s claims.
   were made public in late                                                                                            That attention irks Stöhr,
   November. He noticed that six Agitator. Henry Niman (top) is worried that pigs on Korean farms (shown here who points out that Niman
   of the viruses appeared to be being sanitized for foot-and-mouth disease) may harbor a strange flu virus, posing has not published in the sci-
   hybrids; in addition to genes a threat to human health.                                                          entific literature since 1996
   from H9N2, an avian flu virus                                                                                    and is not a flu expert. WHO
   that previously circulated in Korean pigs, they more, “I have many scientific data that can will not issue an official statement about the
                                                                                                                                                       CREDITS: YUN SUK-BONG/REUTERS; (INSET) H. NIMAN

   had between three and seven genes with rebut WSN contamination,” he wrote in a case, he says: “We’re not going to bother 6.5
   WSN/33-like sequences.                            follow-up e-mail. But he declined further billion people with something that’s of no
       WSN/33 was produced in 1940 by comment until his results are published. Seo public health importance.” Webster, too,
   infecting mice with the first human flu virus says Science rejected his paper describing says any publicity is too much: “It’s so easy
   ever isolated, in London in 1933. It’s a mys- the discovery of WSN in pigs but may these days for somebody with a Web site to
   tery how it got into the pigs, says Niman, reconsider the manuscript if the findings are create a lot of panic.”
   who proffers scenarios ranging from a lab backed up by a well-established flu lab.                    Being an expert doesn’t always mean
   accident to illicit experiments to create a          Seo hopes that Malik Peiris at the Uni- being right, counters Niman, who adds that
   deadly flu strain for biowarfare—neighbor- versity of Hong Kong and Yoshi Kawaoka at when the truth comes out, “WHO and Web-
   ing North Korea comes to mind, he says. the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who ster will look very ridiculous.”
   Niman believes the spread of the virus both have samples from Korea, can confirm                                               –MARTIN ENSERINK

1392                                         4 MARCH 2005      VOL 307     SCIENCE
                                                                    Published by AAAS

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