Recreating 1918-19 Spanish Influenza: New Influenza Pandemic Danger?

Spanish influenza patient attended by masked hospital staff, US Naval Hospital New Orleans, Louisiana, USA autumn 1918. Photograph courtesy of US Naval History and Heritage Command.

This is a Spanish influenza patient attended by masked hospital staff, US Naval Hospital New Orleans, Louisiana, USA autumn 1918.
Photograph courtesy of US Naval History and Heritage Command.

Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison successfully reconstituted a virus 97% similar to the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, partly from fragments of avian viruses. Does this research put us all at risk?

The Great Pandemic

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services article, “The Great Pandemic,” the Spanish Flu killed an estimated 40 to 100 million people in the immediate aftermath of World War One.

In response, Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at Paris’ l’Institut Pasteur, described how this research renders the avian viruses H5N1 and H7N9, which currently circulate in Asia, more readily transmissible to mammals and argues that this research ensures that the world is now a potentially a more dangerous place.

Researchers have known the genetic sequence of Spanish Influenza H5N1 since 1997 primarily due to research carried out on the tissues of the victims of the 1918 pandemic by Jeffrey Taubenberger at the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.

The Presence of Avian Viruses Facilitated the Reconstitution of 1918 H1N1 Influenza Virus

Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka maintains there is sufficient strain in the current avian viruses to naturally reconstitute the famous H1N1 of 1918. Professor Kawaoka found eight sequences in currently-circulating avian viruses to recreate the H1N1 influenza virus. He then tested the virulence of the reconstituted virus and found it is 1,000 times less infective than the flu of 1918.


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The LD50 measure (i.e. the number of virus particles required to kill 50% of test mice) required 100,000 virus particles. Laboratory animals proved more susceptible and the virus more transmissible due to their closer, more confined living conditions. Fortunately, Oseltamvir (Tamiflu) offers robust protection against newly-created viruses.

Spanish Flu virus

If we’re hit by another Spanish Flu pandemic, health officials would prefer a vaccine that manufacturers can produce quickly. Image by the U.S. CDC

Newly-Created Viruses Could Lead to Seasonal Deaths

Simon Wain-Hobson of l’Institut Pasteur asked about ‘the chances of eight viral segments reuniting in nature?‘ Kawaoka could not respond.

If this occurred, this combination could possibly result in 250,000 – 500,000 deaths as per seasonal influenza. In “Do We Need to Fear Influenza, Again,” Patrick Berche of L’Hopital Neckar in Paris asserts the level of security for these newly-created viruses was P3 and was not maximal security.

During the last two decades of research at least a dozen accidental escapes from laboratories at level P4 security have occurred.

Research into Dangerous Viruses Make No Provision for the Safety of Human Lives

Kawaoka countered Berche’s warning when he insisted he used antiviral safeguards and he warned public health officials in case of a pandemic risk. Kawaoka further insisted his own vigorous security precautions in his laboratories were adequate to reduce chances of the newly-created pandemic flu virus escaping.

Fouchier’s Ferrets

Kawaoka research could be less of a threat than other risky experiments. The research community feared problems after the recent revelation that Ron Fouchier rendered the Avian Virus H5N1 more transmissible between ferrets.

The creation of this ‘supervirus’ led to a temporary moratorium on this type of research. At the end of 2013, 56 scientific establishments combined to interdict these extreme experiments, without success.

Viruses and The Future

There are documented and verifiable occasions worldwide in which scientists work on these types of substances and compounds where there is no accountability, potentially resulting in a lethal pandemic which threatens humankind.

The scientific community must hold Professor Kawaoka, and others studying such volatile research, accountable for laboratory conditions and the safety of the public.

© Copyright 2014 Paul Dunne, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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Comments

  1. Paul DunnePaul Dunne says

    The US Russia and other countries harbour serious pathogens, ostensibly for research purposes, since their discoveries in the 1960/70s for the stared purpose of creating antidotes to offset their use as bio-weapons.

    The Ebola and Marburg viruses and the H1N1 influenza virus are currently stored in safe research centres.

  2. says

    Man can be pretty stupid when he wants to be. Virus research needs to proceed with the greatest of caution. In certain cases, it would be best not to pursue it at all. Interestingly, “conspiracy-type” rumors put the 1918-1919 virus’ point of origination in the U.S. for intended use in WWI. I don’t know about all that, but it does highlight the possibility of groups producing such weapons.

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