Madison is home to one of the world’s top virologists

Yoshihiro Kawaoka is studying COVID-19 at his posts at UW–Madison and the University of Tokyo.
Yoshihiro Kawaoka in a lab

Photo by Jeff Miller/UW–Madison

When Yoshihiro Kawaoka first came to the United States in the summer of 1983 to work on influenza viruses, the man who became his American mentor, Dr. Robert Webster of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, asked him to help study a bird flu outbreak in Pennsylvania.

What had been a mild avian virus in April had turned much more lethal by October, killing countless chickens. When the same strain re-emerged in 1985, both Webster and Kawaoka traveled to New York City to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to contain the virus.

Studying it back in Memphis, Kawaoka — today a University of Wisconsin–Madison scientist and one of the world’s top virologists — discovered the virus had mutated, going from nonpathogenic to highly pathogenic.

“Yoshi was very instrumental in characterizing that virus,” Webster says.

His time with Webster in Memphis launched Kawaoka’s career. Because of Kawaoka’s work on influenza and Ebola viruses, UW–Madison recruited him in 1997. Part of the recruitment package was the commissioning of the $12.5 million Influenza Research Institute, which opened in 2008. In 2013, Kawaoka was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Earlier this year before resigning as Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe named Kawaoka, who has an appointment at the University of Tokyo, to an expert panel on COVID-19. He’s kept an exhaustive travel schedule for years and, at 64, shows no interest in slowing down.

“He was probably my best student over 50 years, which is saying something,” Webster says. “He had the ability to get things done. Coming from a veterinary background, he knew the molecular aspects of a problem and wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He’d go from the field to the lab and think deeply about it.”

Kawaoka was born and raised in Kobe, Japan’s seventh-largest city. His father was in the import-export business.

Kawaoka went to veterinary school at Japan’s Hokkaido University. “I wasn’t interested in research at the beginning,” he says. “Once I started doing it, I got interested and decided to stay in academia.”

Kawaoka’s mentor at Hokkaido was Dr. Hiroshi Kida (an associate professor while Kawaoka was pursuing a master’s degree). Kida spent a year with Webster at St. Jude, and on returning to Japan sent his best students to Memphis. “I always wanted to come to the United States,” Kawaoka says.

working in a lab with several viles

A researcher splits and redistributes cells in a science lab at the Influenza Research Institute, overseen by Kawaoka. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW–Madison)

After reading in 1994 “The Hot Zone” — Richard Preston’s gripping account of the origins of Ebola — Kawaoka felt compelled to work specifically on that virus.

“That’s the only book I’ve read in English from beginning to end,” Kawaoka says. “It was so interesting and exciting. Everything on the autopsy of monkeys infected with Ebola was similar to what we were seeing in chickens infected with the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus. That’s why I started working on Ebola.”

In 1997, a former St. Jude influenza colleague, Dr. Virginia Hinshaw, suggested Kawaoka join her in Madison. He applied for a position in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine.

“I came to Madison, talked to people, and liked the place,” says Kawaoka, who has turned down many offers, including one from Yale University, to stay in Madison.

His career has largely garnered one accolade after another. But in 2012, Kawaoka created controversy when it was revealed — he wrote about it — that the Madison lab was recreating and tweaking deadly avian viruses in an effort to better learn how to fight them. Ignoring the stringent security in place, some headlines predicted doom should there be an accident.

“The criticism was natural,” Webster says. “Why do you make a virus deliberately more lethal than it already is? Because without doing that, you don’t understand the strategies for controlling it. Yoshi was using all the recommendations from [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] — the facilities were perfect.”

Kawaoka says the criticism didn’t bother him, pointing out his election to the National Academy of Sciences the following year. “We did exactly what we were supposed to do, following all the rules and regulations.”

Kawaoka says he first knew COVID-19 was serious in mid-January, when he read a pre-publication New England Journal of Medicine article that said a team from China and Hong Kong had gone to Wuhan on Jan. 3 to do surveillance on the outbreak.

“That was shocking,” Kawaoka says. At the time there had been no official confirmation of human-to-human transmission.

“But when you deploy a team to do surveillance,” he says, “the virus is spreading.” Those researchers knew. “It’s very unfortunate that information was not spread internationally.”

The novel coronavirus has upped the stakes for Kawaoka and his teams in Madison and Tokyo, yet life goes on in a pandemic, even for one of the world’s leading virologists. Kawaoka and his wife, Yuko — she has illustrated many of his articles and presentations — celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary earlier this year.

Asked how long he intends to work, Kawaoka points back to Memphis and Robert Webster.

“My mentor worked until, I think, 86 or 87,” he says. “As long as my brain is functional and my body is OK, it will be nice if I can continue to work.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.