The Resuscitation of the Spanish Flu
By Davide Castelvecchi
The virus that caused one of the deadliest epidemics in history is back, and it is killing again — though just mice in the lab for now. Scientists have decoded the DNA sequence of the 1918 “Spanish” flu virus, and they recreated it. Most disturbingly in a year during which the prospect of new pandemic of bird flu has caused growing concern, the research has revealed that the 1918 flu also was bird flu, as opposed to a mutated human virus or a hybrid of the two. (See my friend Andreas von Bubnoff’s article in Nature magazine and Gina Kolata’s in the New York Times.)
This was Jurassic Park come true. The researchers had found fragments of the 1918 virus in bits of lung tissue from two soldiers and an Alaskan woman who died in the 1918 pandemic. The soldiers’ tissue had been kept in an Army warehouse, while the woman had been buried in permanently frozen ground.
Andreas’ article revealed that the work had been done at biosafety-3 labs, instead of the highest level of safety, or biosafety-4. In another article in December, Andreas also unveiled that other safety-3 labs can mail-order highly dangerous viruses such as this (see Nature 10 Nov 2005, p. 134-135). Moreover, the DNA sequence has been made public, and others could also try to recreate the virus. Virtually anyone can order synthetic DNA from specialized companies, as was confirmed by a New Scientist investigation.
Scary stuff. But all told, this was a fantastic breakthrough, one that could teach us how to fight future epidemics. Only by tinkering with microbes can we hope to overcome them.