How to write scientific illiterate articles for maximum effect

I ran across this blog post the other day, the title of which was “Scientist creates new flu virus that can kill all of humanity”. Scary, right? The blog post states:

“Working at a lab with a relatively low level-two biosafety rating, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka has created a strain of flu that can completely escape the human immune system. The new genetically-engineered virus is based on H1N1, which may have killed 500,000 people just five years ago.”

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that biosafety level 2 really is “relatively low.” It’s not. Going from 4 to 1, level 4 is for those pathogens for which there is no cure, no treatment, no vaccine, and are easy to transmit through an aerosol. They’re the typical “nightmare scenario” viruses and bacteria that are the fuel for a lot of science fiction stories, like Ebola or smallpox.

Level three is for things that are potentially lethal and can become aerosolized if not handled properly. These are bugs like Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague. You can also include West Nile virus and Chikungunya virus, mosquito-borne viruses that can make you really, really sick.

Level two is for dangerous pathogens that are not easy to aerosolize and, if you do come into contact with them, there is a vaccine or effective therapy for it. These are the laboratories that you commonly find in a hospital. And level one is a general lab that you’d find at a college or university, or even a high school. All you have to do is practice safe techniques and you’ll be okay.

So what did Dr. Kawaoka do? Did he really create a Frankenstein virus? The blog post continued:

“The venue for the research was the Institute for Influenza Virus Research in Madison. The institute has a level three agriculture biosafety rating, one level beneath institutes that carry out Ebola research. However, Kawaoka’s work was carried out at a level two biosafety lab. The University claims there was no risk of escape from the lab. For reference, the recent Anthrax contamination scare at Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a level-three biosafety rating.”

The casual reader might be scared because Anthrax is always portrayed in popular culture as something deadly and used for a bioweapon. You can thank the 2001 Amerithrax attacks for that. The influenza virus is not a spore that can live on surfaces and resist all sorts of disinfecting agents. Anthrax doesn’t spread from person-to-person like influenza. And you can effectively treat Anthrax with different antibiotics.

What the scientist did was revert the H1N1 virus that we all got to know really well in 2009 to a pre-pandemic genetic state. The proteins that it displayed on it surface are different, and, thus, we would not have immunity against it since our immune system has not seen those different proteins. That is the source of concern in this research. In essence, the scientist created a “novel influenza virus” that is capable of kicking off a sustained outbreak.

Yet this is no different than what mother nature does on a day-to-day basis. Novel viruses and bacteria of all kinds are emerging all over the globe all the time. Evolution of this kind is very fast.

So why did he use biosafety level 2 if this could trigger a pandemic? Because, under those circumstances, it is not unreasonable to believe that the virus will get out of the lab. You wear your gloves, your gown, and your N95 mask, and you only work with the virus under a biosafety hood. You also conduct a systemic decontamination of all surfaces when you’re done, and that decontamination (10% bleach, probably) is reasonably expected to kill any and all influenza viruses that could have gotten out.

I know we like to be scared and that a viral apocalypse is the stuff of nightmares. But it doesn’t help to sensationalize this type of research as being something capable of killing “all of humanity.” Science and scientists have it bad enough in today’s political environment without sensational headlines that can further sway public opinion away from this research. We need to know what the genetic changes are that create novel viruses so that we can understand how to counteract them better. We don’t need to be afraid of trying to find that knowledge.

I'm a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen