Web Zap*Germs Archive

January 30, 2006

Resurrecting the 1918 Flu Virus - Why?

The NYT Magazine has an excellent article on the pros and cons of reviving the deadly 1918 flu virus. A brief clip:
The 1918 flu virus is remarkable for two reasons. First, it caused perhaps the most lethal plague in the history of humankind. In the fall of that year it spread across the planet, perversely striking down healthy young adults. Once ensconced in their lungs, the virus triggered a havoc of inflammation, hemorrhage and cell death. Trying to draw air into such lungs was like breathing through meat. Many of the afflicted died within hours after they first began to feel a little feverish. Others succumbed more slowly to secondary bacterial infections.

By the spring of the following year, the virus had disappeared as mysteriously as it had come.

The second, and in some ways even more remarkable, thing about the 1918 flu virus is that it has literally been brought back to life. In October [2005], a team of scientists...announced that they had recreated the extinct organism from its genetic code - essentially the scenario played out in the movie 'Jurassic Park,' albeit on a microbial scale. In the movie, the scientists' self-serving revivification of dinosaurs leads to mayhem and death.

[The real-life scientists] want to know what made the 1918 flu, which began as a virus native to wild birds, mutate into a form that could pass easily from one human to another. That question has been weighing on the minds of flu experts since 1997 - since the first fatal case in Hong Kong of the avian flu that has since killed more than 70 people in Asia. So far, all of its victims probably caught the disease from handling infected poultry and not from other people.

How close is it to crossing the same lethal line that the 1918 virus did? What can be learned from the virus that caused the great pandemic that might help us avert another one?


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