- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2005

ATLANTA (AP) — Scientists have made from scratch the Spanish flu virus that killed as many as 50 million people in 1918, the first time an infectious agent behind a historic pandemic has been reconstructed.

Why did they do it? Researchers say it may help them better understand and develop defenses against the threat of a worldwide epidemic from bird flu.

Like the 1918 virus, the avian flu in Southeast Asia occurs naturally in birds. In 1918, the virus mutated, infected people and then spread through the population. The current Asian virus has killed at least 65 persons but has rarely spread person to person.

But viruses mutate rapidly and the Asian virus could soon develop infectious properties like those of the 1918 bug, said Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger of the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

“The effort to understand what happened in 1918 has taken on a new urgency,” said Dr. Taubenberger, who led the gene-sequencing team.

The public health risk of resurrecting the virus is minimal, U.S. health officials said. People around the world developed immunity to the 1918 virus after the pandemic, and a certain degree of immunity is thought to persist today. Also, in previous research, scientists concluded that modern antiviral medicines are effective against viruses like the Spanish flu.

The virus re-creation, announced yesterday, is detailed in the journal Science. The completion of that gene sequencing was announced in the journal Nature.

The virus particles are being stored at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and there are no plans to send samples off campus, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, the agency’s director.

However, the genetic information sequenced by Dr. Taubenberger is being placed in GenBank, a public genetic sequence database operated by the National Institutes of Health.

Scientists need access to the research as they try to develop vaccines and antiviral medications against potentially pandemic agents, said Donald Kennedy, editor in chief of Science.

“We carefully considered the implications of publishing this research and concluded that the knowledge we’re gaining to potentially protect public health far outweighs the risk of working with the virus,” Mr. Kennedy said.

The Spanish flu of 1918 was a terrible pandemic. In a few months, it killed more people than any other illness in recorded world history — an estimated 20 million to 50 million worldwide, including roughly 550,000 in the United States.

In severe cases, victims’ lungs filled with fluid and they essentially drowned in a disease process that took less than a week. The Spanish flu was known for being particularly dangerous to young adults, a group usually less susceptible to flu complications than younger and older people.

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