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Scientists: 1918 Killer Flu Was a Bird Flu

Ominous Changes in Current Bird Flu Echo 1918 Virus
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New Information to Help Fight Flu continued...

"There are a number of ways one needs to prepare for a flu pandemic. And there is no better way than understanding the issues described here -- particularly the adaptability of the virus in a sense of efficient person-to-person spread and pathogenesis," Fauci said at the news conference.

CDC Director Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH, says the 1918 virus has a lot to teach us.

"We have been able to unmask the 1918 virus and it is revealing to us some of the secrets that will help us prepare for the next pandemic," Gerberding said at the news conference. "Some of those secrets are what led to efficient transmission in people -- and what made it so deadly. This important science does create new information and clues that will ... accelerate development of our antiviral drug stockpile and vaccines to protect against H5N1 or another virus."

Mount Sinai researcher Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, PhD, is one of the developers of the reverse genetic technique used to reconstruct the 1918 virus. He says the genetic changes that help flu bugs adapt to humans appear to be common to all type A flu viruses.

"What is interesting is these genes seem to be involved in the virulence of other flu viruses, not just bird flu," Garcia-Sastre said at the news conference. "So there are common themes involved in the virulence of flu viruses. Now we have good clues for the development of new drugs against flu disease."

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.

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