AUSTIN — The US military is attempting to resurrect the influenza virus that killed up to 40 million people in 1918. Several genes of the extraordinarily lethal "Spanish flu" have been isolated and introduced into contemporary flu strains. The new strain has proved to be lethal for mice, while the contemporary flu it was made from had hardly any effect.
The Spanish flu was highly infectious and killed a very high percentage of those infected, including many younger people. It caused life expectancy in the US in 1918 to drop by 10 years.
Despite the very dangerous nature of the 1918 virus, efforts to reconstruct it began in the mid-1990s, when Dr Jeffrey Taubenberger from the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology succeeded in recovering and sequencing fragments of the viral RNA from preserved tissues of 1918 victims.
After partially unravelling the genetic sequence of the virus, the scientists went a step further and succeeded in creating a live virus containing two 1918 genes that proved to be very lethal in animal experiments.
A resuscitation of the Spanish flu is neither necessary nor warranted from a public health point of view. Allegedly, the recent experiments sought to test the efficacy of existing antiviral drugs on the 1918 construct. But there is would be no need for antiviral drugs against the 1918 strain if it was not recreated in the first place. "It simply does not make any scientific sense to create a new threat just to develop new countermeasures against it", said Jan van Aken, a biologist with the anti-biological weapon group, the Sunshine Project. "This particularly dangerous eradicated strain could wreak havoc if released, deliberately or accidentally."
Construction of new maximum security (BSL-4) laboratories for "bio-defence" research has been justified by Washington in part by citing the potential of the Spanish flu as a biological weapon. Influenza usually requires a low level of containment; but when scientists begin recombining virulence-related genes, the danger dramatically increases. The University of Texas Medical Branch's BSL-4 plans influenza "gene reassortment" experiments in maximum containment.
"This kind of research is creating a vicious circle and could prompt a race by bio-defence scientists to genetically engineer unthinkable diseases", said Edward Hammond from the Sunshine Project.
"If Taubenberger worked in a Chinese, Russian or Iranian laboratory, his work might well be seen as the 'smoking gun' of an offensive bio-warfare program", noted van Aken.
A Sunshine Project briefing paper on the "Reconstruction of the Spanish Influenza Virus" is posted at <http://www.sunshine-project.org>.
From Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.