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Viral Media Hype

Viral Media Hype

Our response to the latest in bad reporting by the tabloids.

Originally shared by Science on Google+

  #ScienceMediaHype  Scaremongering Over Viral Research

You may have seen the media circulating a sensationalised story about the research by Professor of Virology, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who works at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Kawaoka studies influenza viruses, specifically the “molecular mechanism of interspecies transmission of the virus leading to influenza pandemics in humans. His previous research explores genetic compatibility between swine-origin influenza virus (S-OIV), a contemporary avian flu (H5N1 virus) and human influenza viruses (* He also examines why, in rare cases, viruses such as avian H5N1, H7, and H9N2 become transmitted across animals species to humans even though they do not spread efficiently from person to person (

Kawaoka has published various studies to determine how different types of influenza viruses work their way from species to species through various modes of transmission. This includes a comparison of duck and quail flu transmission to humans (the latter is a potential point of transmission to humans; swine influenza in macaques (closely mimicking influenza in humans; and the spread of H5N1 influenza viruses in mammals in a study of ferrets and hamsters (

His work is also important in understanding why some influenza viruses affect some groups of people more than others, such as in a study comparing swine-origin H1N1 influenza virus in mouse models from Norway, Osaka and California (see images). The study showed the that pathogenic strains possibly develop in response to aberrant immune responses in some people, leading to lethal results in a minority of humans ( Vaccines are imperative but they have limited viability, and so combined therapies appear to be more effective (

Sites like The Independent, The Daily Mail, Gizmodo and others have ran scaremongering headlines such as -“Scientist creates new flu virus that can kill all of humanity.” These news reports emphasise that Kawaoka’s ongoing research is unpublished but they claim that his work is reckless and divisive amongst the scientific community. The fact is that all research remains unpublished until it’s gone through peer-review; there’s nothing under-handed about this, it’s simply the scientific process.  These news stories make it seem like Kawaoka is manufacturing viruses that might easily escape into the public. This fear is unfounded as there have been no reported breaches of protocol. This is nothing more than irresponsible reporting. Research labs are closely monitored. There is enough of Kawaoka’s research available in the public domain to demonstrate its scientific rigour and value.

Social science research shows that media hype shapes public responses to disease ( Misinformation about the epidemiology of illness – the spread, causes and social dynamics of disease, can severely impact how the public responds to both epidemics and pandemics. Kawaoka’s research evaluates the transmission and generation of pandemic viruses across various species and to people. This work is important because influenza viruses do not spread consistently across populations. We need to better understand these patterns in order to plan and prevent pandemics that might otherwise severely impact public health. Poor science reporting serves to spread fear, rather than educate and ultimately undermines public health efforts.

As our Moderator, Rajini Rao points out, there is no truth to the claim that the scientific community is split over this research. The news sites do not provide credible links to substantiate this claim because it’s not true. This sort of viral research is not unusual and it is the basis for making anti-viral therapy. Unfortunately, this sort of media hype  comes up at regular intervals.

Check out these past debunking posts that delve into misinformation about similar research, by Prof Rao and Dr Tommy Leung

See more of Kawaoka’s research:

Image Credit Ryuta Uraki et. al., 2013 “Virulence Determinants of Pandemic A(H1N1)2009 Influenza Virus in a Mouse Model,” _Journal of Virology, vol. 87 no. 4. Notes in images are direct quotes from the paper.


*All cited research has been conducted by teams of researchers, with Prof Kawaoka being one of several authors, and not necessarily the lead investigator.

#virology   #science   #stem   #scienceongplus   #health   #publichealth   #socialscience  


Join the Conversation


  1. Strange how this kind of headline does not appear in the context of nuclear power plants and weapons, ex. scientists “scientists invent new tactical nuclear warhead that can kill the inhabitants of a city and leave the infrastructure intact” or “poor storage of nuclear waste threatens the health of millions”


  2. I think all the  media hype we can muster is justified on the creation of virulent organisms.With new knowledge growing in genomics the problem is not manipulating the gene anymore, in fact soon we can turn a simple Mycoplasma into a lethal weapon. More scary is it could be done by anyone with a basic background in natural science and a home laboratory.


  3. As has been pointed out in the discussion in the accompanying community post, highly infectious and virulent organisms like Ebola, Rabies and MRSA already exist freely in nature. The viruses generated by this research do not reach the level of infection as natural viruses today or even in the past. It’s far easier to contain viruses in a lab setting than in the natural world. Ultimately, the risk for a pandemic is much greater from viruses freely evolving in nature than from a controlled lab experiment. 

    The disservice done by media hype comes from the disproportionate focus on potential risks versus real benefits of this research. It takes a fringe view from the scientific community and elevates it in an attempt to get readership. 

    See another debunking blog post from TWiV here:


  4. It is because of financial or egoistic bias taking place in medical research today that we are confronted with such malarkey.

    The quote form Science on Google ” It’s far easier to contain viruses in a lab setting than in the natural world. Ultimately, the risk for a pandemic is much greater from viruses freely evolving in nature than from a controlled lab experiment.” Now who on earth can come up with such nonsense. It IS exactly  because of eons of evolution that we can coexist with microorganisms today that we consider disease causing . If we alter the genetic makeup any existing viral or antimicrobial particle acutely our immune systems have now chance to respond. More importantly in an age of mobile DNA who knows what such an ‘artificial’ genetic modification can produce in view if emerging knowledge on the plasticity of the genome. So called junk DNA is an evolutionary remnant for a reason, to manipulate the code is risky. As Karen Leutheuser  said “We came in with a bang, but we will go out with a pathetic whimper. ” I may add with a pathetic ‘man-made’ whimper, even more insulting to an Intelligent Design .


  5. So we shouldn’t study for vaccines and microbiology because of “intelligent design”?? I fully support sanctioned controlled studies on influenza, Marburg, Ebola, MRSA, cancer, and other virulent diseases for the cure. Otherwise we just let nature run its course, and let thousands be wiped out for ” intelligent design”. Better than spending time and money on weapons research..


  6. We certanly should, but we first have to create a new ethic in science and

    control human greed. As we can gather form observing the actions of the

    human race we have a long way to go, somehow our science have preceeded our

    moral and ethical evolution as a species. Here is a thought, if we

    accidently genetically manipulate the Ebola virus or should it mutate to be

    horisonatlly transmitted and water or air vector born (either by accident

    while doing research or as a deranged terrorist organisation) what then ?


  7. Theo Holtzhausen scientists who study airborne transmission of viruses do so with the intent of understanding how it works, so they can recognize and target similar changes in the wild. Your hypothetical case of scientists engineering Ebola virus is more fear mongering than rational fact. Deranged terrorist organization already have access to chemical, nuclear and existing nerve toxins and biological weapons. Idle speculation over Ebola just adds to the mindless hype and we strongly discourage it. 


  8. Also in contained environments, might I add. Unlike in movies (Dawn of Planet of the Apes is a great example…) there are protocols in place within laboratories to keep contamination confined, and in such experiments scientists would be quarantined for the incubation time of said virus. If you or someone you loved (even a neighbor or someone local) contracted hemorrhagic fever wouldn’t you like to know we could cure it rather than watch as you liquify from the inside out, becoming a vector yourself? Two cases of flu from Saudi Arabia were contained by doctors realizing they had made contact with the disease and coordinated with the CDC to ensure no further transmissions stateside.


  9. Agreed, we should focus on reducing suffering and improving quality of life

    for all sentient beings. The question remains how do we do this in a world

    where some are starving,suffer form malnutrition due to poverty and the

    rich are in pursuit of an unproven and rather wasteful longevity medicine.

    Unfortunately the cure for cancers and viral diseases will most likely be

    secured in genetic modification either to produce protective elements in

    the patient or alter the virulence of the disease mechanism itself- this is

    also where the danger lies without a global ethic of benevolence and

    harmony. Again we are not as a species responsible and mature enough for

    this fragile task so until such time we shall have to wait.

    Kind regards

    Dr Theo Holtzhausen


  10. By readjusting priorities on medicines and research. I have a nifty article for you from Forbes. We spend more on a single drone than research of all disease. We are more focused on war then on helping one another. I will give you these other problems however curing a disease which affects anyone regardless and maintaining health of our populace through education. Those are unrelated problems to the discussion altogether, however. Also, medicine in an outbreak is cheaper than food all the time (teaching ag practices is the best I can think of)


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