Dr. Adrian Gibbs, a Canberra, Australia-based virologist with more than 200 scientific publications to his credit, said that over the weekend he submitted his latest work on the swine flu to a prominent scientific journal, and is awaiting a response.
Gibbs, 75, was part of a team that developed the antiviral drug Tamiflu.
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Back in April, when the first cases of swine flu were diagnosed in Mexico, Gibbs examined the genetic structure of the virus that had been posted on a public database. His analysis led him to speculate that the virus may have been the result of a laboratory error. He contacted the Geneva, Switzerland-based World Health Organization with his conjecture, and scientists there scrutinized his findings, concluding, however, that the virus was most likely a product of nature.
In a series of email exchanges with Peter's New York, Gibbs said he was not satisfied with the WHO's critique, indicating that the basis for it was ambiguous.
"The WHO stated that they had no evidence to support my suggestion," Gibbs said. "They made a very fair statement. However the principle reason for my conclusion remains-that none of the genes of the new virus had been sampled/found/caused epidemics since at least 2000, despite probably coming from at least two different parents on two continents, where other strains had been sampled."
Gibbs said that might have been a coincidence, but the unusual placement of the virus on what what virologists call phylogenetic trees-a sort of schematic family history of the virus--also peeked his interest. On top of that, Gibbs observed that there was a lack of evidence that pig populations in North America, from which the virus is believed to have emerged, had been infected. Only the pigs on one farm in Canada have as yet been shown to have contracted the virus.
It has been established, said Gibbs, that swine easily contract the new flu from humans, and spread it among themselves. The absence of infection in the North American swine, Gibbs noted, may be evidence that the swine had already contracted the disease and built up immunity, or that they were vaccinated against viruses that resembled the novel swine flu closely enough for them to have been protected against it. Gibbs said the one Canadian herd that came down with the novel swine flu had not been inoculated, and that the evidence therefore leans toward inoculation as the reason North American pigs are disease free. That, in turn, would support a theory, according to Gibbs, that "the virus in the vaccine may be the immediate progenitor of the new human virus."
Gibbs said he would have been more satisfied if scientists at the WHO had examined the lists of all the vaccines licensed for production in the United States and Mexico and determined that none of them harbored strains from which the swine flu could have descended. He said he had been unable to locate such lists to make the determination himself.
Gibbs spells out fairly clearly how he thinks the new virus might have emerged due to a laboratory error. In manufacturing a vaccine, each of the viruses to be protected against must first be bred and then sterilized to prevent their further multiplication. When a subject is inoculated, the body reacts to the "killed" viral fragments and produces antibodies that provide protection against the live virus. Gibbs said that if the sterilization process was not carried out properly, pigs could end up being given live viruses, and instead of being protected, would contract the disease. The live viruses would then have a chance to multiply and exchange genetic material within the infected pig in a process known as reassortment, and a new virus could emerge and spread to humans as a "swine flu."
The study of viruses is overlaid with a complex nomenclature and labyrinthine concepts and arguments in the field of genetics that are unfamiliar to the average layman. But the implications are far reaching, a fact not lost on the general public or on Gibbs.
Early this year, the Deerfield, Ill. based drug firm Baxter International Inc. shipped experimental vaccines for human flu that were contaminated with the bird flu. The cocktail of influenzas, if it had not been discovered by alert laboratory specialists in the Czech Republic in February, could have been administered to subjects, after which, some experts feared, the two viruses could have undergone reassortment, producing a new virus that possessed the lethality of bird flu and the communicability of human flu. Bird flu is a deadly disease that kills close to half its victims, but resists spread from human to human. Human flu, on the other hand, is far more benign, but is easily spread through human contact. A recombined virus with the characteristics of each of the two could conceivably wipe out almost half the world's population.
Gibbs steers clear of elaborate intrigues that some believe are behind the new flu's emergence. "Whenever I've thought something has resulted from a conspiracy, it usually turns out to be from a 'co*k-up,'" he said. The importance of establishing whether or not the flu emerged from a laboratory, he emphasized, is "to try to avoid a recurrence."
He did admit, however, that there was a definite risk to the public of escaping pathogens held in government and private facilities.
"There are many historical precedents that are conveniently forgotten," said Gibbs. "The recent Baxter incident seems to have been one."
"The reappearance in 1977 of the H1N1 (virus) last seen in 1950 after a period of non-evolution," which he speculated could represent "suspended animation in a freezer," was another instance in which pathogens might have escaped from a laboratory. Gibbs also cited the escape of foot-and-mouth disease from a British government laboratory facility in 2007.
Asked if the resurrection of the viral agent for the deadly 1918 "Spanish" flu, which was reconstituted in 2005 by scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for research purposes, was a safe proposition, he answered, "No, definitely not."
"It's exactly the same principle as should apply to all high security labs," said Gibbs. "If it ain't 'there' it can't get out, whereas if it is, then there is always the possibility, however remote, that it might get out."
The 1918 flu, which spread to every corner of the globe in the two years immediately following World War I, had a rate of lethality some 30 to 50 times greater than other strains of human flu. Tens of millions of people died in the pandemic worldwide.
While some aspects of his presentation have been updated, Gibbs said his basic premise remains unchanged, and has, in fact, been reinforced by recent additions to the scientific literature.
And while the WHO gave the appearance of having put the final nail in the coffin of Gibbs's theory, in a rare show of scientific honesty for a public institution, it affixed the lid rather loosely, leaving itself room to revisit Gibbs's hypothesis once it is published.
In the mid-May press conference in which the WHO addressed Gibbs's analysis, which by that time has spread far and wide throughout the mainstream media, Assistant Director Keiji Fukuda praised the virologist who had contributed to the field for more than fifty years of professional work, calling Gibbs "a credible scientist, a credible virologist."
In answer to a reporter's question about whether Gibbs's theory had been refuted, Fukuda said: "I think that it is fair to say that in the world of science, nothing is ever totally excluded, nothing is ever ended." On the issue of whether Gibbs's theory may actually prove true or not, he said: "We feel very comfortable based on the analyses which have been done, based on the rigor in which it has been looked at, that we are not dealing with a laboratory-created virus. However, I do not expect that the debate itself will stop."
The world awaits Gibbs's response.