Web Zap*Germs Archive

October 06, 2005

1918 Influenza Discovery: A Bird Flu That Attacked Humans

exhuming 1918 influenza victim buried in Alaska permafrost
"This [discovery] is huge, huge, huge," said John Oxford, a professor of virology at St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital to the NYT.

[Update 02 Dec 2005: The New England Journal of Medicine has a free article describing what was learned from the genetic material of the 1918 flu that may help in predicting future flu pandemics.]

"It's a huge breakthrough to be able to put a searchlight on a virus that killed 50 million people. I can't think of anything bigger that's happened in virology for many years."

Oxford was talking about the discovery made by CDC researchers, who synthesized the virus that caused the 1918 worldwide flu pandemic, then infected mice and human lung cells in a secure lab setting.

Basing their research on fragments of the virus saved by US Army pathologists, and the body of an Alaskan woman recently exhumed from permafrost (see photo), the researchers found that the 1918 virus -- which killed 50 million worldwide -- was an avian flu that jumped directly to humans.

Read the full article for more detail on the research, how it can help scientists understand the current avian flu threat, and why some researchers think that "resurrecting" the 1918 virus is playing with fire.

Read the CDC press release.


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