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Have Bioterrorists Infected Swine in Korea with Human WSN/33?

Recombinomics Commentary

April 30, 2005

The question of bioterrorists infecting swine in South Korea with human WSN/33 remains unanswered more than six months after infection.  Moreover, a draft of a WHO statement on WSN/33 in swine concluded that the sequences at Genbank may be due to lab error.  This statement reinforced WHO comments published in Nature and Science.

The sequencing of nine additional sources of WSN/33-like H1 genes has virtually eliminated the possibility that the WHO speculation is correct.  The recent use of the term "uploaded" in the draft of the WHO statement of their conclusions regarding  the status of WSN/33 sequences at Genbank suggests WHO is still in denial about the existence of the sequences.  The WHO is still clinging to the absurd suggestion that the 30 WSN/33 sequences at GenBank were from the wrong file, even though they are well aware of the fact that the sequences were described in a manuscript that indicated the sequences were WSN/33-like.  Moreover, the paper presented serological data to support the sequence data that the sequences at Genbank were from virus in swine and not lab contamination or lab error.

It has been over six months since the sequences were deposited at GenBank and long past time for WHO to begin generating some real data.  The WSN/33 clearly came from a lab, and the best data are those sequences that have been available at Genbank.  New sequences from newly infected swine produce less useful information for tracing the origin of the sequences, because the virus is evolving away from the original sequences.

WHO should be collecting WSN/33 samples from their network of experts.  Most or all have their own stocks of WSN/33, and the sequences of those stocks may help determine the origin of the genes in swine.  Right now they could have come from a domestic or military lab or they could be from a bioterrorist attack.  Remarkably, more than 6 months after infections, WHO has yet to acknowledge the existence of the WSN/33 in swine.

WHO has significant expertise in their network of experts.  Finding more positive samples in swine should be a trivial task.  WHO has been given the sequences of the primers that detect the H1 sequences, and screening lung samples from dead pigs should be relatively easy.  Sang Seo now has 11 unique sequences from WSN/33 H1.  WHO claims to have none.  WHO has written a statement reaffirming their December, 2004 conclusion that the WSN/33 sequences were due to lab error, yet they have not produced a single H9N2 sequence that would lend some credibility to their conclusion.

While WHO has been seeking evidence to prove that WSN/33 did not exist in swine, the virus has been evolving and spreading.  Sequences now can be found in fatal swine lung infections.  WHO has complained about lack of information from Vietnam on bird flu cases and the sequence data to determine the evolution of H5N1.  However, the WHO has been quite inept at resolving the situation in Korea, even though they have been given virus, nasal swabs, primers, and complete sequences.  Although the WHO has access to the expertise to resolve this issue, there is an obvious lack of desire to find WSN/33.  Instead the effort has been to generate evidence for the misguided conclusion that the WSN/33 sequences are due to lab error.  This effort has been a dismal failure. As the WHO spins its wheels, the virus evolves and spreads. 

A serious investigation is long overdue.

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