Two teams of federal and university scientists announced today that they had resurrected the 1918 influenza virus, the cause of one of history’s most deadly epidemics, and had found that unlike the viruses that caused more recent flu pandemics of 1957 and 1968, the 1918 virus was actually a bird flu that jumped directly to humans.
The work, being published in the journals Nature and Science, involved getting the complete genetic sequence of the 1918 virus, using techniques of molecular biology to synthesize it, and then using it to infect mice and human lung cells in a specially equipped, secure lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The findings, the scientists say, reveal a small number of genetic changes that may explain why the virus was so lethal. The work also confirms the legitimacy of worries about the bird flu viruses that are now emerging in Asia.
The new studies find that today’s bird flu viruses share some of the crucial genetic changes that occurred in the 1918 flu. The scientists suspect that with the 1918 flu, changes in just 25 to 30 out of about 4,400 amino acids in the viral proteins turned the virus into a killer. The bird flus, known as H5N1 viruses, have a few, but not all of those changes.
Here is the full story, which contains many other points of interest, including whether the sequencing should have been done in the first place. In case you forgot, 1918 was the flu pandemic which killed 50 to 100 million people, and don’t think we are so much better protected in 2005. Today I started writing my piece on what we should do about avian flu.