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Scientists: 1918 Killer Flu Was a Bird Flu

Ominous Changes in Current Bird Flu Echo 1918 Virus

What if It Escapes?

The decision to re-create a living 1918 virus was made only after consultation with several advisory bodies, Gerberding and Fauci said. The bug now lives in a level 3+ containment facility at the CDC. Outside researchers are invited to study it -- but only at the CDC lab, and only with security clearance.

"It is unlikely this virus could emerge and cause a pandemic," Gerberding said. "It is important to emphasize we have erred on the side of caution at every stage. We have no intention of releasing this from the CDC any time soon."

Gerberding says that everything is being done to ensure that the bug stays in the lab. But if it were to escape, she says it probably would not rekindle a 1918-style epidemic. For one thing, it's an H1N1 virus, and the current annual flu vaccine contains an H1N1 virus. Moreover, most people have been exposed to H1N1 viruses, so many people would be immune.

None of this, however, means that a 1918 virus on the loose would be harmless. Natural and vaccine immunity probably would make the bug less deadly but would not offer full protection.

"We do not know the extent this [immunity] would protect people from harm," Gerberding noted. "But a pandemic in this context would be unlikely."

Meanwhile, researchers at The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md., plan a detailed analysis of large numbers of bird flu isolates. This, they say, will help them track the ongoing evolution of bird flu.

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