Fatal Immunity and the 1918 Flu Virus

"After all, the 1918 strain killed tens of millions of people and it had to be able to do something that other viruses cannot do," said Philip Alcabes, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and associate professor of public health at Hunter College, City University of New York.

But the research does not tell us anything specific about contemporary flu strains, like the H5N1 avian flu virus that has infected birds and some humans in several Asian countries.

Scientists fear that the H5N1 virus -- or some yet-unknown virus -- will soon explode into a pandemic.

"While [this report] is a reminder that a flu virus can develop extraordinary virulence under certain circumstances, there is no reason to expect that circumstances [if we had a pandemic today] will resemble those in 1918," said Alcabes.

The research does suggest some "distant goals on the horizon," said Schaffner.

"This is basic science. It doesn't immediately suggest a new therapy against the H5N1 virus, but it suggests new ways for scientists to look at or study that virus," he said.

Bottom line -- new research on the regenerated 1918 flu virus shows just how deadly the virus really is. The new research could eventually lead scientists to a new therapy, to a new way of treating deadly flu viruses.

But while scientists continue to study the deadly regenerated virus, is there any way the virus could escape? Just like the Jurassic Park DNA slipped out of science's control, could we have a real life 1918 flu pandemic back on our hands?

Probably not. So don't call Steven Spielberg yet.

Security Measures

The 1918 virus is studied in a biosecurity level-four laboratory -- the highest level of security possible for a scientific lab.

"Biosecurity" refers to special security measures designed to prevent the loss, theft, misuse, diversion or intentional release of pathogens or toxins, such as the 1918 flu virus.

A level-four lab is equipped with special airlock entry, shower exits and secure waste disposal. Scientists have to wear special suits and breathe filtered air. A level-four lab is "a highly contained, elaborately guarded laboratory. It is the ultimate guarded laboratory," said Schaffner.

So the virus should be safely under lock and key there, excepting an unforeseen disaster.

"We are never sure. It is a continuing challenge," Said Dr. Ann Marie Kimball, director of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Emerging Infections Network and a professor at University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

Despite the unavoidable uncertainty, there is little reason to worry that the 1918 flu will come back.

"Any virus in a laboratory could, in theory, escape but … to the best of my knowledge, the laboratory involved here is a most responsible one," said Dr. Don Henderson, resident scholar at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and dean emeritus at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Henderson is a former adviser on bioterrorism to president Bush and led the World Health Organization's campaign against smallpox in the 1960s.

Should scientists be working with such a deadly virus?

"My answer would be an unequivocal yes," said Henderson.

"We need to learn all we can about pathogens in order to develop means of our own for prevention or therapy."

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