Burdens of Man-made Pandemics: A Risk Assessment & History
Reports by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
Risk Assessment: The Human Fatality and Economic Burden of a Man-made Influenza Pandemic
In August 2013 letters to the journals Science and Nature, 22 virologists have notified the research community of their intent to develop and research mtGOF strains of the H9N7 influenza virus that has caused over 130 human infections and 43 fatalities in China. Among the research on live flu strains that the virologists would like to see performed are “transmission studies to identify mutations and gene combinations that confer enhanced transmissibility in mammalian model systems (such as ferrets and/or guinea pigs).” The wild-type H9N7 strain is only mildly transmissible among ferrets, and human infections seem to have tapered off.
The voluntary research moratorium on mammalian-transmissible highly pathogenic avian influenza virus has ended, and research is resuming. These potential pandemic pathogen (PPP) flu strains may already be highly contagious in humans, with the threat of accidental release from research labs seeding a pandemic.
Is a pandemic from a lab release from PPP flu research a possibility? The simple likelihood-weighted-consequence analysis (LWC analysis) presented here can provide insight into the answer for this question. Among the consequences of a release are fatalities, severe illness, and economic loss. Each lab working with PPP flu strains carries with it the burden of these consequences.
Laboratory Escapes and “Self-fulfilling prophecy” Epidemics
The danger to world or regional public health from the escape from microbiology laboratories of pathogens capable of causing pandemics, or Potentially Pandemic Pathogens (PPPs) has been the subject of considerable discussion including mathematical modeling of the probability and impact of such escapes. The risk of such releases has generally been determined from estimates of laboratory infections that are often incomplete, except for the recent 2013 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report, which is a significant source of recent data on escapes from undetected and unreported laboratory-acquired infections (LAIs).
This report presents an historical review of outbreaks of PPPs or similarly transmissible pathogens that occurred from presumably well-funded and supervised nationally supported laboratories. It should be emphasized that these examples are only the “tip of the iceberg” because they represent laboratory accidents that have actually caused illness outside of the laboratory in the general public environment. The list of laboratory workers who have contracted potentially contagious infections in microbiology labs but did not start community outbreaks is much, much longer. The examples here are not “near misses;” these escapes caused real-world outbreaks.