Soon to be published in the journals Science and Nature, virologists have isolated the flu virus that caused the 1918 pandemic, killing 50 milling people, reports the NY Times.
It had been "like a dark angel hovering over us," said Dr. Oxford, the virology professor at St. Bartholomew's. The virus spread and killed with terrifying speed, preferentially striking the young and the healthy. Alfred W. Crosby, author of "American's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918," said that it "killed more humans than any other disease in a similar duration in the history of the world."The story of how this flu virus was reconstructed over the last decade is facinating. In 1918 viruses were unknown, and therefore a sample had not been isolated. As luck (or some bizarre approximation) would have it, the Spanish Flu of 1918 swept through an Alaskan village; the permafrost burial plot served as a freezer for the virus.
Then Dr. Taubenberger received a third sample, from a woman who had died in Brevig, Alaska, when the flu swept through her village, killing 72 adults and leaving just five. The dead were buried in a mass grave in the permafrost. A retired pathologist, Johan Hultin, hearing of Dr. Taubenberger's quest, had traveled from his home in San Francisco at his own expense. He dug up the grave with the villagers' permission, extracted the woman's still frozen lung tissue and sent it to Dr. Taubenberger.In the last 18 months, the media has been reporting on more isolated outbreaks of avian flu. Could a new bird flu jump to the human population and wreak havoc on the world? More importantly are concerns about using the 1918 flu virus in bioterrorism.
Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers, said he had serious concerns about the reconstruction of the virus. "There is a risk verging on inevitability, of accidental release of the virus; there is also a risk of deliberate release of the virus." And the 1918 flu virus, Dr. Ebright added, "is perhaps the most effective bioweapons agent ever known."Is the science more important than the risk of terrorism? The short answer is yes. If the threat of possible terror use of the 1918 influenza virus as a weapon were to stop significant scientific research into how viruses mutate, thus leading to discoveries in an array of areas (including possibly AIDS research), then the terrorists have accomplished their goals while still snuggling up in their caves.